Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

Although the goal of sobriety and recovery is to avoid substance use permanently, relapse is, unfortunately, a common part of the recovery journey from alcohol and drug use. To understand why relapse is common, it is essential to recognize how addiction develops in the brain. Substance use exposes an individual’s brain to abnormal surges of brain chemicals that produce feelings of well-being and pleasure. When substances are used repeatedly, it can be quite difficult to reverse the effects of substance use on the brain.

As a result, many people in recovery experience relapse. Despite common misconceptions, relapse is rarely a singular event. Instead, it is a gradual process that occurs in stages. It is imperative to understand each of these stages, as well as the warning signs that accompany them, to better recognize when to be concerned and prevent engaging in a full-blown physical relapse.

Understanding Substance Use and Relapse in the Brain

Addiction is a chronic and complex mental health disorder that is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using behavior, despite the consequences that these behaviors produce. Although an individual’s initial decision to use drugs may be voluntary, repeated substance use can quickly become compulsive and involuntary as it changes brain structure and functioning in such a way that an individual’s self-control becomes compromised. This can be understood primarily through the flooding of dopamine.

Dopamine Reinforces Substance Use

Dopamine is a chemical messenger that plays a key role in the brain’s reward circuit. This circuit is responsible for identifying and motivating behaviors that individuals perceive as pleasurable. A sober brain identifies and is motivated by natural rewards, such as favorite hobbies and socializing.

Substance use causes dopamine surges that exceed the perceived pleasure achieved from such natural sources. Once substances compromise the brain’s reward circuit, it will reinforce repeated substance-using behaviors to achieve excess dopamine surges.

Relapse During Addiction Recovery

One might wonder why individuals remain prone to relapse after choosing sobriety and recovery. This is because addiction is a chronic disease. Substance use not only compromises an individual’s reward circuit, but it also compromises natural brain functions such as:

  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Self-control
  • Decision-making
  • Stress management
  • Judgment
  • Overall behavior

Some might think that stopping substance use is the ultimate feat. While a commitment to sobriety is worth celebrating, the hardest part of the journey is yet to come. Treatment and long-term recovery habits must remain constant to reverse the brain changes that had been caused by repeated substance use.

As addiction is a disease, individuals who battle it are unable to control their cravings and behaviors. Treatment helps individuals learn how to navigate their cravings and replace unhealthy habits with healthy coping mechanisms. However, because addiction lies deep within the brain, long-term treatment engagement is necessary to maintain long-lasting sobriety.

Understanding Addiction Relapse in Stages

Since relapse is common, the most effective way to prevent it is to recognize it as a gradual process. There are three stages of relapse: emotional, mental and physical. Learning to identify the warning signs associated with each stage can reduce relapse risk throughout treatment and long-term recovery.

#1. Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse occurs before an individual starts to consciously think about engaging in substance use again. Often, emotional relapse occurs as a result of unmanaged stress or anxiety and can set an individual up for relapse down the road. Important warning signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Bottling up emotions
  • Isolating
  • Not attending meetings
  • Not sharing at meetings
  • Neglecting healthy eating and sleeping habits
  • Poor self-care

Individuals who find themselves in a state of emotional relapse should prioritize self-care. They must also learn to recognize their denial so they can prevent themselves from progressing through further stages of relapse.

#2. Mental Relapse

A mental relapse occurs when part of an individual wants to use substances again, but another part of them does not. They may want to use substances as a way to self-medicate their stress or because they feel unmotivated to sustain recovery. Warning signs of mental relapse include:

  • Craving preferred substances
  • Glorifying past substance use
  • Minimizing consequences of past use
  • Bargaining
  • Lying
  • Feeling as if they can control their substance use
  • Searching for relapse opportunities

It is essential for individuals experiencing a mental relapse to utilize professional help to recognize and avoid situations that may put them at risk for a physical relapse. Individuals must know that uncomfortable — and often distressing — cravings are a common part of the recovery journey. Similarly, they should implement healthy coping mechanisms to motivate them to overcome these cravings.

#3. Physical Relapse

The final stage of relapse is physical relapse. Some people use the term “lapse” to refer to an initial re-engagement with a substance, whereas a “relapse” is the uncontrolled use of the substance. If individuals are truly committed to their recovery but relapse, they are not a failure. As mentioned, relapse is often a part of people’s recovery process. The biggest determinant is whether the individual is ready to attempt sobriety again, and repeatedly, until they achieve lifelong abstinence. Recovery is all about commitment, regardless of the hardships that may be experienced along the way.

Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC) is an addiction treatment center that understands addiction as a disease. We offer a wide range of treatment services and comprehensive aftercare assistance to help you stay committed and engaged in your lifelong recovery journey. If you experience a relapse, we can modify your treatment plan to better prevent emotional, mental and physical relapses in the future. To get connected with treatment, or to learn more about our programs, call us today at (713) 939-7272