5 Most Common Reasons People Relapse in Addiction Recovery
Updated: December 17, 2020
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Recovery from addiction can be very challenging. Relapse is sadly a very common occurrence. According to some statistics nearly half relapse at some point and according to other studies the vast majority do.

What is a relapse?

A relapse is a medical term that refers to a worsening in a condition that had shown a significant amount of improvement in the past. About addiction, it is a situation where an addicted individual had ceased partaking in the behavior to which they were addicted but have since renewed it.

It is equally important to note what relapse is not. It does not mean that all of the previous work done in recovery was wasted and it does not mean that the addict’s life has automatically reverted to the bad state it was in before the relapse. It merely means that the addict has reverted to some of the adverse habits they engaged in previously.

Relapse is also not a failure. Instead, it is a call for help and an indication that something needs to be recalibrated on the road to recovery.

Why Do People Relapse?

Addiction is a chronic disease. This means that if it is not constantly managed it can reemerge. There are many potential “triggers”, elements that if introduced into the addicts’ life make a relapse more likely.

Here are the top 5 reasons that people relapse:

1. Negative emotions

In particular stress and depression. When an individual first enters recovery and their life begins to improve, they may experience a certain euphoria. Sometimes this is referred to as a “pink cloud.” Very often recovery is stable from the beginning until a major life crisis is hit.

This is where the trouble can start. Addicts are used to dealing with a crisis by falling back on their crutches, including harmful addictive behavior. It is certainly possible to find new and healthier ways to deal with the crisis. However, it can be overwhelming to try and deal with both recovery and a new source of stress and depression at the same time.

2. Environmental factors

When people are fresh in recovery, they often avoid the friends they used to engage in harmful behavior with or the places where this behavior once took place. However, as they get stronger, they may let their guard down and meet that friend or go to that bar. This can sometimes be too much to deal with and lead to relapse.

Other times the environmental trigger is random. Perhaps a song plays on the radio that reminds the addict of the period when they were using. Perhaps they smell marijuana or alcohol on someone’s breath.

The common denominator is that something takes the addict back to a time and place when they were practicing dangerous and addictive behavior.

3. Lack of Motivation and Meaning

When an addict has quit the addictive behavior but has not filled their life with new meaning and activity, they may find themselves prone to relapse. A life of empty drudgery can seem pointless after a while and lead to a lack of motivation in sticking to a program of recovery. It is not always misery and depression per se that lead to addictive behavior. Instead, it can be a lack of meaning and direction.

When recovering from addiction, it is advised to build a healthy new lifestyle to support recovery. Volunteering, family, exercise, mindfulness, friends, and hobbies can help fill that void. Indeed, the 12-step programs advise that a life based on giving to others can do wonders for filling the hole that addiction once filled.

4. Isolation

Loneliness and a lack of true connection with other people are often at the heart of addiction. One of the common themes in addiction is the feeling of being apart from society and a lack of empathy from others. The lack of a strong support network or the fraying of an existing one can be a major factor leading to relapse.

When overcoming addiction, it is important to keep in contact with others who are experiencing or have experienced similar obstacles. This is where 12-step programs are very useful. Fellowship through the group and a strong relationship with the sponsor can prove a powerful antidote to isolation and loneliness.

5. Biological Causes

Addictions have a biological component, especially when they are substance-related. However, behavior-based addictions can also trigger biological compounds and may have substantial genetic components. This means that the craving for the substance or behavior can have strong subconscious foundations, as well as intense physical ones.

In these cases, cognitive therapy or medical treatment may be an essential part of recovery. This does not replace a healthier lifestyle but rather supplements it.

What to do When a Relapse Occurs?

The good news is that relapse does not have to be an irreversible event on the road to recovery. It can be a setback or better yet, an opportunity to learn some important lessons.

If you have relapsed examine your life in recovery. If you are honest with yourself, you will probably notice that some parts of your new life were healthy and you should resume them. Meanwhile, in other aspects perhaps you were entertaining unhealthy tendencies whether consciously or subconsciously.

Now you can recalibrate your recovery. Maintain the elements that have been working for you and dispense with those that have not. If there are holes in your existence leading to loneliness and despair, try to find new healthy, and fulfilling ways to overcome them. Volunteering and helping others are particularly helpful ways of doing this.

Look at the relapse as an opportunity to learn, not as an opportunity to give up.