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How to Build a Solid Relapse Prevention Plan

Addiction is no joke. Left untreated, it destroys the lives of both the people who suffer from it, and often, the lives of their loved ones, too.

Making a commitment to recovery is by far the best way to get – and stay – sober for life. No matter what your drug (or drink) of choice, most experts agree that inpatient treatment provides the best opportunity for long-term success. Access to 24/7 guidance and assistance ensures your first steps into long-term sobriety are as comfortable, safe, and productive as they possibly can be.

The problem for many patients is not what happens in treatment, but what happens after they leave. Without the safeguards of the treatment facility environment, it becomes very easy for people to slip back into old habits – and that often leads to relapse.

What Is Relapse?

Relapse is a momentary lapse of recovery where a person who is an addict starts using again. For example, someone who is in recovery for alcoholism might decide to drink again despite previously committing to staying dry and sober.

People relapse for many different reasons. Sometimes, the sheer stress of re-learning how to navigate the world becomes too much. In other situations, a certain relapse trigger (like smelling alcohol or seeing someone use drugs) might cause the person to rationalize “just one use.”

The problem, of course, is that “just one use” doesn’t usually work out to an addict’s benefit. One use turns into two, and then three, and then four, and then five…and then, suddenly, the person is right back where they started.

We’re here to tell you that relapse is a normal part of the recovery process. It isn’t a reason to feel ashamed or an excuse to exit recovery. Between 40 and 60 percent of all people who struggle from addiction will relapse at least once – you aren’t alone.

In fact, relapses can even be a learning tool, if viewed in the right light, helping you to prevent similar experiences in the future. But the much better approach is to have a plan for preventing relapses even before you leave treatment.

Common Relapse Triggers

Being able to identify triggers that might increase your risk for relapse is by far the most potent tool in preventing a problem. When you know about a potential trigger, you can avoid it or make a plan for extra support when you encounter it “in the wild.”

We mentioned earlier that everyone’s triggers are different – but there are some proven experiences and situations that seem to affect most addicts.

      • Encountering drugs or alcohol.
      • Experiencing extreme stress.
      • Struggling with mental illness.
      • Missing meetings or therapy sessions.
      • Lacking a safe and stable home.
      • Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
      • Divorce, grief, and other “major changes.”

Old memories, flashbacks, and thoughts may also trigger a relapse, as can feeling burned out, being physically ill, and just feeling burned or “tapped out.” Everyone has these experiences now and again, but in the case of addiction, they can be what finally pushes someone to use – even if they’re committed to sobriety.

Remain Engaged in the Recovery Community

Research shows that people who remain engaged with the recovery community have a lower chance for relapse. Even if they do relapse, they bounce back faster and have better support getting back on track.

Get engaged with the sober living community in your local area, including meetings, sober events, alumni meet-ups, and volunteer opportunities. Make sober friends who share your dedication to remaining drug or alcohol-free.

If you find yourself drifting away from the community, or justifying missing events and activities, consider it a red flag. This is often the first step before someone starts to justify missing “just one meeting,” which can quickly snowball. The further away from the recovery community you get, the higher the risk of relapse.

Take It Step by Step, One Day at a Time

You don’t have to stay sober for life. You don’t even have to stay sober for weeks or months. In fact, the thought of being without your drug of choice for any real period of time might feel downright overwhelming, which is exactly why we say “one day at a time” in the first place.

Focus on staying sober just for today. Whether the day before goes well or you have one of the worst relapses you’ve ever experienced, each day is a new opportunity to learn and grow. If you can make it just 24 hours, you’re already achieving more than many people achieve!

Create a Support Network

Join a support group – or two, or three, or even four, if you need it. Attend meetings, if they’re right for you. If not, make a plan to create a support network in other ways, like seeing a therapist, making a list of sober buddies, or even staying in contact with your treatment center.

Don’t forget that your support network also includes your doctor, your psychiatrist, and anyone else involved in your care. If you suffer from comorbid mental or physical health problems that need longer-term treatment, commit to following through in these areas, too. Even if it’s just an occasional check-in, it will make it easier for you to stay on track.

Your support network is so critical to your success. When you’re struggling, they’re available to help lift you up. Choose people you know you can trust to fight for your sobriety even if you feel your own confidence waning.

Schedule Your Days

You should always schedule your days – even if you aren’t working right now or plan to take several months off. Boredom and free time is the addict’s worst enemy. Keeping busy gives you something to focus on, preventing you from those self-rationalizing thoughts that tell you why it’s okay to use just once.

Stay busy working, volunteering, or even just attending meetings as often as you can (without putting yourself into burnout mode, of course).

While you should stay busy, be cautious about overburdening yourself with stressors. Staying busy isn’t the same thing as burning yourself out! Working so hard that you end up relapsing to cope with work is most definitely not the goal.

To combat this concern, include regular downtime – but make it specific. If you’re going to spend the day relaxing, plan to read a good book, watch movies, or do some gardening in the backyard. Schedule social time with safe friends to ward off the trigger of loneliness. Practice self-care, like taking a hot bath or reading a good book, and outside resources, like going for a massage or taking a yoga class, to fill up any other gaps.

Oh – and be sure to schedule in plenty of sleep, too.

Create a Backup Prevention Plan

Even if you’re attending support groups, going to meetings, scheduling your days, and staying engaged in the recovery community, the reality of life may still put you in situations where you feel your commitment slipping away. Make an emergency relapse prevention list – a simple list of easy reminders and resources you can turn to at any time – and keep it with you always.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be available and realistic. Write it on an index card, in a journal, or even on a memo on your smartphone…anywhere you can grab it and follow it in seconds when you’re feeling triggered. Include:

      • A list of people you can call – like sponsors, therapists, loved ones, or even addiction hotlines. Include multiple people so if the first person isn’t available, you can move down the list until you get someone.
      • A list of “safe spaces” – such as local meetings, your home, an addiction drop-in center, or even your treatment center, if they provide alumni services. Include hours of operation and/or any info you might need to access them.
      • A list of reasons to be happy with sobriety – include all of the reasons you believe so strongly in sober living. These can be light-hearted (not having a hangover is great!) or serious (if I keep using, I’ll lose custody of my children). When you feel your resolve slipping, read the list again.
      • A list of stress-relief strategies – so that when you feel you’re losing your grip, you can work down the list one step at a time. Start with simple, quick fixes (taking your medication, if prescribed, or using breathing exercises to relieve anxiety attacks and strong emotions). Graduate all the way to checking in at your local treatment center and/or visiting your therapist.

Lastly, include a list of hotlines and crisis services you can access if you can’t, for whatever reason, access any of the options on your list. Sometimes, just talking to someone who understands can be enough to get you past a craving relapse-free.