What to do after a relapse

What to Do After a Relapse

When you’re on the road to recovery, it’s important to remember that relapse is often part of the process. For some people, a relapse might seem like the end of the world. It’s important to remember that it’s not. A relapse is a slight stumble, and as long as you’re able to catch yourself and get back on your feet, it shouldn’t be too much to worry about.

In this article we’re going to discuss some of the things that you can do if you ever find yourself having a relapse. The advice provided in this article will teach and remind you how to check in with your emotional health, avoid your triggers, and overcome any cravings that come your way in the future.

I’ve Relapsed! What Can I Do?

Alright, so the unthinkable has happened. You’ve used drugs or alcohol again after a stint of sobriety. The first thing to remember is that this doesn’t have to be a huge deal. Rather, it can be considered a minor setback, and still part of the process of recovery.

In that sense, the first and most important thing that you’re going to have to do is go easy on yourself. If you’re hard on yourself – which many people are – then this could make it harder to get back on your feet.

For example, many people experience shame, guilt, and anger when they relapse. These emotions aren’t usually directed externally, rather, they are directed inwardly: toward yourself. Because we are not educated on how to understand and respond to emotions, many people don’t even recognize these feelings when they arise. 

That does not mean that they are there, though. For many, these feelings emerge as negative self-talk. You may tell yourself that you’ve messed up, that you’ve made a huge mistake, that you’re not good enough to be sober. You may tell yourself that you’re a hopeless cause. 

Not only are these thoughts destructive and dangerous, they often manage to slip past our radar. If you aren’t an introspective person prone to self-reflection (which many people are not, because these are not traits often prized in a capitalist society) then much of your internal dialogue simply occurs without you being aware of it.

This is how people develop unhealthy beliefs and subconscious behavior patterns. When these thoughts and feelings are allowed to continue unchecked, they grow in strength and distort an individual’s perception of themselves.

You may have learned a bit about this during drug or alcohol counselling. It’s important to remember to check in with yourself and your self-talk. Many people are hard on themselves without even realizing it. When you’ve had a negative voice inside your head for most of your life, it tends to become background noise which passes you by.

So remember that even if you do have a relapse not to be hard on yourself. A good rule of thumb is to avoid telling yourself anything that you wouldn’t tell a friend of yours. If you wouldn’t tell your friend that they are “hopeless and unworthy of sobering up,” then why would you tell that to yourself?

Identify the Cause of Your Relapse

Now that you understand the importance of being kind to yourself, you can move onto the next step. The next thing that you should do is figure out what caused your relapse. You aren’t going to be able to effectively prevent your next relapse if you can’t figure out what caused this one.

Take a look through these common causes of relapse. If one or more of them seems to resonate with you then it could be worth looking into further. Take into account any changes that have occurred in your personal, emotional, or financial life recently. All of these factors can play in and contribute to a relapse.


One of the biggest causes of relapse is stress. Stress can arise for a huge number of different reasons which makes it one of the most important things to consider when trying to identify the cause of your relapse.

In fact, research has revealed that people who struggle with substance addiction experience increased desire for using substances during periods of stress. This is even more true if the person primarily used substances as a coping mechanism for difficult emotions. 

One of the best ways to prevent a stress-related relapse is to learn better coping mechanisms for managing stress. We will discuss these in more detail later in the article.

Encountering Places or People Connected to Your Addiction

Even once you have sobered up, it can be difficult to return to places or associate with people who were connected to your addiction.

Places that you used to frequent when picking up drugs tend to remain emotionally charged. If you’re walking through a neighborhood that you only visited in order to score drugs, then you’re going to be more vulnerable to slipping into old patterns. It’s best to avoid these places, but in some cases, this is unavoidable.

It’s also important to avoid people who were connected to your addiction. This is rather obvious in regard to people who you used to use substances with. However, some people may also find that they get triggered when they associate with someone they spent time with during their addiction, regardless of whether or not the other person used.

The issue here is not necessarily reconnecting with people who can bring you back into the drug world. Rather, it is a problem of bringing up old memories and associations that remind you of your days of addiction.

Difficult Emotions

Another thing that may trigger you to use drugs or alcohol is difficult emotions. Many people originally start using drugs as a method to cope with or cover up emotional pain. If you don’t learn proper coping skills for these feelings, then even if you sober up you’ll always be at risk of relapsing.

Many people learn some healthy coping mechanisms during their rehabilitation programs. However, new and unexpected emotions can always arise. Being caught off-guard by a challenging or uncomfortable feeling can make someone prone to using drugs or alcohol.

It’s important to remember that emotions don’t occur for no reason. There is always an underlying cause for these emotions. Recognizing that these emotions are opportunities for growth is an important approach. Not only will this make you less likely to relapse it will ensure that you can push through these uncomfortable feelings and become stronger as a result.


Another trigger for relapse is attending celebrations. Celebrations are times of joy and festivity. During these times you might feel elated and confident – so confident that you feel like you can handle just a single drink or a single puff. 

On the other hand, you may feel underwhelmed, introverted, or anxious at a celebration. These feelings can certainly be triggers. Many people reach for substances when they feel like they’re having a hard time fitting in or connecting with others in social situations.

Change in Priorities or Support 

It’s important to always prioritize your recovery. If your recovery isn’t in the forefront of your mind, it becomes a lot easier to slip up and have a relapse. You need to make sure that you always remain committed to long-term sobriety, even if that commitment comes in the form of affirming each morning that you’ll avoid substances just for the day.

Another trigger is experiencing changes in your support network. Your support network is a group of people, resources, and programs that you utilize to help you stay focused on your recovery. Changes in this support group, such as the loss of a close friend or counsellor, can catch you off guard and make it easier to relapse.

Bouncing Back After a Relapse

So the relapse has happened. Now that you know what sort of things might have contributed to it, it’s important to make sure that you can get back on your feet. Here are some tips for making sure that you stay strong after your relapse.

Prepare for the Feelings

While we’ve discussed the importance of being easy on yourself, that doesn’t mean that negative emotions won’t arise after your relapse. You may experience guilt, shame, and humiliation. Remember that these feelings aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Rather, they could be arising because you care about your own well-being and you’re ashamed that you’ve put that at risk.

In either case, take time and energy to prepare yourself for these difficult feelings when they arise. Part of being easy on yourself is making space in which you can feel these emotions. Don’t repress them and find a healthy outlet. Encourage yourself to reach out to people who can help you process these emotions.

Broaden Your Support Network

After you’ve had a relapse it’s important to make sure that your support network remains strong. If you have fallen out of contact with members of your support group, this could be a contributing factor to your relapse.

In either case, make sure that you reach out to a sponsor or addiction coach to let them know about your relapse. They will be able to guide you forward and help make sure that you’re not going to slip again. 

It’s also important to branch out and make sure that your sober social network is still strong. If you haven’t been connecting with sober friends and family members then you might experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Find people who are willing to support you through difficult times and make sure that you build strong bonds with them.

Consider Treatment

Whether or not you have already completed a treatment program, relapse could be a sign that you need to return. If you have never gone to treatment, this could be a sign that it’s time to go.

If you have already completed an outpatient program and find yourself using substances again, you might want to consider inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment is more intensive but often leads to more success in recovery.

Forgive Yourself & Move Forward

If you don’t forgive yourself for your relapse then it’s going to be impossible to move forward. If you don’t forgive yourself then feelings of shame and guilt will have no outlet. They will continue to affect you. If these feelings persist then you may be more likely to relapse in the future. 

While these feelings are, at least initially, often the catalyst for someone to want to make changes, they don’t help in the long run. Once you’ve acknowledged your relapse, you can begin to make positive changes to prevent the chances of relapsing again. As you do this you can work on releasing these negative emotions and forgiving yourself.

Learning to Prevent and Manage a Relapse

Now that you’ve got some idea about how to bounce back after a relapse, it’s a good idea to learn how you can prevent this from happening again in the future. These are some of the best tools that you can employ to prevent yourself from having another relapse.

Practice Meditation

Meditation is a very useful skill. People in Eastern cultures have been honing the practice of meditation for many thousands of years, but it has only recently reached the western world. Nonetheless, meditation is a powerful tool for anyone who wants to develop self-awareness and learn to manage their emotions, triggers, and cravings.

Regular meditative practice allows you to develop clarity. With clarity you are better able to perceive your emotional health. This means that you’ll have an easier time recognizing cravings or emotional triggers before they are able to take control.

Mindfulness meditation is a specific practice that allows you to develop a non-judgmental state of awareness by accepting things as they are. This is immensely valuable for anyone who wants to move forward through recovery since such a large part of recovery involves self-acceptance.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care practices are anything that provides an avenue to improve your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. There are a lot of things that you can do to practice self-care, including:

  • Having healthy eating habits. Avoid eating processed junk food, refined sugars and fried foods (which can create addictions on their own). Create a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish. These foods are filled with vitamins and minerals that promote good health.

  • Practice good sleeping habits. Sleep deprivation can create mental and physical health problems in addition to fatigue. These issues can contribute to relapse.

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise primes the body and encourages your brain to produce the proper neurotransmitters for regulating mood, diet, and energy levels. Exercise can also improve self-esteem and self-confidence.


HALT is an acronym that stands for ‘hungry, angry, lonely, tired.’

Whenever you’re feeling uneasy, it’s a good idea to check in with yourself to see if you’re feeling any of these things. If you are, take the necessary steps to eliminate the uneasy feeling by resting, eating, decompressing, or reaching out to loved ones.

Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques are often associated with meditation, and indeed, more advanced breathing techniques are often employed in certain forms of meditation. However, even simply paying attention to your breath and making subtle changes can have a profound impact on your overall mental health. 

Breathing is the only activity that we’re engaged in 24/7 around the clock. Our breath allows us to draw in oxygen which fuels every part of our body, including our brain. Ensuring a healthy supply of oxygen is important for anyone who wants to live a happy and healthy life.

The easiest thing that you can do is make sure that you’re practicing deep breathing. Doing so helps to ensure that your brain has the oxygen it needs to produce certain neurotransmitters. Make sure that you can feel your belly fill up when you breathe rather than just your chest.

You can also practice breath counting, a simple practice that allows you to draw your focus inward. Simply breathe slowly, counting to a count of 5 as you inhale and a count of 5 as you exhale. Do this for at least 5 breaths and you’ll find that you’re able to relax easier.

Employing breathing techniques is a great way to manage cravings and difficult emotions.

Attend Group Meetings

If you’ve relapsed and haven’t been attending group meetings, it could be a good idea to start going (again). There are lots of group meetings out there. If you relapsed despite going to a group meeting then you might want to switch to a different group meeting.

Most people are familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. However, SMART recovery is emerging as an effective alternative to these programs. Many prefer SMART recovery because it lacks the dogmatic approach employed by both A.A. and N.A.


A relapse can be a challenging experience, but it’s not the end of the world. Understanding the cause of your relapse is important as this helps you identify what sort of things you need to work on to prevent it from happening in the future. 

The advice in this article should help you better prepare for any stumbles in the future. If you think that you’re in need of further assistance, don’t hesitate to reach out to a rehab facility. Connecting with an addiction worker could help you stay strong in your recovery.

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