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Examples of Relapse Warning Signs

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For those grappling with substance use, staying sober is an everyday fight. Learning the signs of an impending relapse is critical in avoiding it. Potential triggers will always happen. Those in recovery need to understand how to manage relapse warning signs to make recovery maintenance possible. 

What Does it Mean to Relapse?

When bad things happen, or a person experiences personal triggers with a substance use disorder, they might start to use again. For some, a relapse can be highly dangerous or even fatal. 

Addiction is an ongoing lifelong disease. Therefore, recovery maintenance is essential to lessen the recurrence of drug use. 

What is the Difference Between a Slip and Relapse?

In recovery, the terms “Slip” and “Relapse” are often interchangeably used. Those with a substance use disorder may see these words as the same thing. Professionally, they have distinct meanings. It’s all in the intentions behind the use. 

  • Slips are unplanned, one-time occurrences. If someone in recovery has a drink of alcohol or uses their drug of choice a single time, that would be considered a slip. 
  • Relapse is when recovery is abandoned altogether. Relapses are not isolated incidences. 

What To Do if Your “Slip” Up

  • Acknowledge it
  • Consider why it happened.
  • Make the conscious decision to remain and commit to recovery.
  • Reach out to your support system, whether it be a loved one, your sponsor, or a close friend. They want to see you succeed, so don’t be ashamed to admit that you need their help. 

Look at our Relapse Prevention Plan for extra help

Relapse Warning Signs: Stages of Relapse 

A relapse is not an isolated event. There are several relapse warning signs as they progress through three major stages. 

The emotional relapse is often the first stage of relapse. 

A person in recovery might experience more negative emotional responses such as anger, moodiness, agitation, and anxiety. They may have sudden erratic eating or sleeping habits. The desire for recovery might diminish, and they avoid their support system. 

These behaviors are relapse warning signs and they happen before someone in recovery even knows that they are dangerously close to a relapse. It is critical at this point to recognize these warning signs. 

The mental relapse is the second stage of relapsing. 

The person in recovery is in an internal tug-of-war between their desire to remain sober and their longing to use. Addiction is a persistent disease; therefore, the desire to use is always there. As this stage progresses, it becomes much harder to maintain recovery. It becomes dangerously critical as the chances of using go from if they use to when.

This final stage of the relapse is physical relapse

Once someone with a substance use disorder reaches the mental relapse, they reach the physical relapse relatively quickly. When a relapse happens, going back to treatment is critical.

The Warning Signs of Relapse

Recognizing the signs of an impending relapse is critical.

Euphoric Recall

A person in recovery may begin to romanticize their past drug use. This is a clear and dangerous relapse warning sign. They might see those times when they used drugs or alcohol in a more positive light and have the urge to relive those moments. 

Euphoric recall can become a dangerous trigger for anyone in recovery. It is much easier for those with substance use disorders to reflect on the good times rather than the anguish and pain that drugs or alcohol caused them in their lives. 

Someone in recovery might think that by using again, they will not slide back into addiction. 


Addiction is a disease that lasts forever. If someone in recovery begins to talk about their ability to use again and not fall back into their addiction, it is an apparent warning sign that a relapse might be taking shape. 

a woman in a striped shirt is sitting while holding her head in her hands

Changes in Behavior 

Another relapse warning sign you might see is an unexpected avoidance and isolation from their support system. A person with a substance use disorder might stay away from healthy habits that once helped them in recovery.

Doubting the Recovery Process

When a person in recovery begins to doubt the process of recovery itself, they are in grave danger of a recurrence. Sometimes someone in recovery may suddenly feel that the program just isn’t for them anymore. Their attitude is that they simply don’t need the help that a recovery aftercare program provides.

When you hear doubt and disdain for the treatment and healing, it is clear that they are on their way to a relapse. This is when treatment is most crucial. 

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome

A person in recovery may experience withdrawal symptom recurrence, which is known as Post-Acute Withdrawal syndrome.

In high-stress circumstances, old withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, sleepiness, and memory loss can cause the person to self-medicate. This self-medicating is a relapse. 

Relapse Triggers

While personal triggers are different for everyone, negative emotions play an integral part in drug-seeking behavior.  

These negative emotions consist of but are not limited to:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Frustration

Other Triggers for Relapse:

  • Positive emotions such as joy and excitement
  • Seeing or sensing an object of addiction. An example of this would be an empty wine bottle or a syringe.
  • Being in a location frequented when using.
  • Any exposure to drugs you used in the past. 
  • Use of other substances. An example of this would be when you continue to drink despite recovering from drugs. The use of another substance can lead to a very high risk of relapse. 


Recovery Maintenance

Relapses can happen. But a relapse does not mean that recovery is unobtainable. Learning how to prevent them is key to recovery maintenance. 

Here are a few steps you or your loved one can take to prevent relapses:

  • Know what your triggers are.
  • Have a reliable support system in place to look out for you and be aware of warning signs. 
  • Avoid the very people and places that make you want to use. 
  • Attend therapy and support groups that encourage your sobriety
  • Avoid exposure to drugs and alcohol as often as possible. 

Recovery from Relapse

If you have experienced a relapse, recovery is still a genuine possibility. Your first step is to reach out to your sponsor or therapist so that they can help you create a plan of action. Be in touch with your support system. While they may have their feelings about your relapse, this is all part of your recovery journey.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, we at Integrative Life Center can help. 

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