A relapse after drug or alcohol treatment does not mean rehab was a failure.

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The National Institute of Drug Abuse says addiction is a chronic disease, and like all diseases the symptoms may improve or worsen with time. About 40%-60% of addicts relapse at some point in their recovery. These setbacks are a normal part of the struggle to maintain sobriety – or a stepping stone along the path but not the end of the road itself.

Angela Frye a licensed mental health counselor associate, chemical dependency professional, and the clinical director of Bayview Recovery defines a relapse as “When a person in recovery stops doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They stop moving forward. They return to old coping mechanisms which can include using drugs and alcohol at dangerous levels.”

Although these setbacks are an understandable part of recovery, it’s natural to want to avoid them. Here are some strategies that can help.

  • Avoid places, people and situations where you are likely to use.
  • Do meaningful activities – volunteer, join a community group, find a new hobby, sport or activity.
  • Take care of yourself – get enough sleep and rest, eat nourishing foods, exercise, etc.
  • Set new short-term and long-term goals that include recovery milestones.
  • Treat any mental health issues and make sure you’re on the right medications.
  • Engage in psychological help and treatment.
  • Consider holistic therapies such as meditation, mindfulness, acupuncture, massage therapy or yoga.

Even if you’re doing many or all of these things, there may be times when you are at higher risk for a relapse. Here are some challenging situations to watch for.

  • Insecure circumstances like unstable housing, professional or personal setbacks, social pressures.
  • Physical health problems.
  • Guilt caused by lapsing – a small lapse can continue if the person feels ashamed.
  • Mental health and emotional issues.

About 50% of people who abuse drugs have an underlying mental illness, and Frye emphasizes the importance of treating these disorders properly. “These mental health issues or underlying traumas need to be addressed in order for a person to get a well-rounded recovery. And sometimes the relapse happens because that underlying issues have not been addressed.”

What should you do if you need to treat a mental illness, or if you’re in one of these high-risk situations? Frye recommends you reconnect with your treatment resources and re-evaluate your approach. “In treatment, you learn to talk about things. When cravings come up, you reach out to positive support groups instead of negative ones.”

These sources of support vary from person to person depending on each individual’s needs, but they can include sponsors, friends, people you know from 12-step programs and therapists. It’s important to keep these relationships active so they’re ready when you need them.

Frye says that treating drug addictions that are especially challenging to recover from, like opiates, has caused professionals to think differently about how to help clients once they’ve left their programs. She believes ongoing contact may be the best way to prevent relapse.

“There’s always been this boundary between the treatment center and the person in recovery,” she says. “And once you leave, the treatment center lets go of you. I see the field turning to a model of having constant contact after discharge. Programs can host alumni events, or even have a case manager reach out every once in a while to ask, how are you doing? What can we do? What are you struggling with? Because they really do form bonds with the staff during treatment and sometimes one little connection can stop something from going wrong.”

For the family

If your loved one relapses, don’t panic. Listen and be part of their positive support network. Encourage them to return to high-quality treatment resources.

But also, know your boundaries. Frye says, “Motivation to not relapse comes from thinking about what a person has to lose. What are the consequences? If they have strong relationships and those family members have firm boundaries and hold their loved ones accountable, the addict is less likely to relapse and more likely to seek help because they have so much to lose.”

Bayview Recovery has helped thousands of adult men and women safely navigate their way through addiction and back to sobriety. Bayview Recovery uses the latest treatment modalities and provides care from intake and lifelong aftercare for alumni.