A “relapse” can’t be contained to one single event. It is an ongoing process that is experienced by a person in recovery and marked by significant red flags or warning signs. These warning signs can cause a person to return to their drug or alcohol abuse. A relapse prevention plan is a great tool that can be used to recognize and manage the warning signs of relapse and sustain a healthy, sober lifestyle.
Why Do I Need a Plan?
Relapse is very common. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “nearly two-thirds of all relapses occur during the first six months of recovery.”
First of all, it’s important to remember that addiction is a chronic disease. Some people will struggle with relapses for the entirety of their life. That doesn’t mean they’re a failure or aren’t still actively pursuing their recovery. Relapse can be caused by a number of different factors, such as stress, money problems, relationship issues or even certain sights and smells, but it’s not the end of the recovery journey.
Additionally, just because you have a relapse prevention plan, doesn’t mean you will relapse. It just helps minimize the damage and quickly get you back on track if you do.
Creating an effective relapse prevention plan is an essential part of living life in recovery. Although every person’s strategy will be different, the following five components should be a part of any solid relapse prevention plan.
1. Take Time for Self-Assessment and Reflection
Why did you use drugs or drink alcohol? Was it to relieve stress? To cope with a traumatic experience? To get away from everyday life and just have some fun? Recognizing your usage patterns can help you pinpoint the things that cause you to resort to substance abuse. It is also helpful to make a list of times in the past when you relapsed and reflect on the situations or events led to those instances of substance abuse. This self-understanding can be used as a valuable tool to fight relapse.
2. Recognize Your Triggers and Warning Signs
A “trigger” is an experience, event or even a person that causes you to stray from a life of sobriety back into substance abuse. Every person will have different triggers, but developing an awareness of your own and making a list of them can help you actively avoid them on a daily basis. Some examples of triggers might be visiting a place where you used to do drugs frequently, hanging out with a person you used to drink with, or even attending a holiday party where alcohol is present. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid these situations, so it’s wise to make a plan of specific strategies that will help you manage each of the triggers on your list. Your counselor or therapist can help you with this.
The warning signs of relapse often come well before a person falls back into old habits, so it’s important to be able to recognize the red flags. Perhaps high levels of stress at work lead you to fall back into substance abuse. Or maybe problems with your spouse seem unmanageable, so your tendency is to rely on alcohol to help you through it. Identifying your warning signs early on gives you time to get help before things spiral out of control.
3. Plan for the Worst
Although this may sound pessimistic, the truth is you don’t want to be stuck without a plan if relapse does happen. Write out a step-by-step plan detailing what you will do if you relapse. You may also want to make a list of people you can talk to if you start to feel yourself falling back into old habits and thought patterns. These people should be individuals you trust and that are familiar with your sobriety goals, such as family members and people from your outpatient support groups. Review your plan for relapse with them and discuss how they can help get you back on track if you do relapse. This could require them to help you get back into an inpatient treatment program or give you a ride to your counseling session. Just make sure they are okay with providing that support if needed.
4. Involve Others
Involving other individuals in your recovery is essential to long-lasting change. Contact someone from your support group, a close friend or your therapist and ask them if it’s okay for you to call when you’re experiencing extreme cravings. Plan on distracting yourself with something else (besides alcohol or drugs) that’s good, such as going for a run with a friend, finally helping your mom clean out her garage, getting coffee with a member of your support group, or going to see a movie with your sister. These are all healthy distractions that will keep your mind off cravings and help you develop relationships with people who want to actively support you in your sobriety.
On the other hand, you must also make an effort to remove yourself from social situations or harmful relationships that may serve as a trigger. Whether it’s a friend you used to use drugs with or an ex-girlfriend who simply can’t enjoy a night out without a drink—these types of relationships are toxic to your sobriety goals.
5. Set Goals for a Healthy Lifestyle
Another very important aspect of a relapse prevention plan is setting daily, weekly, monthly (and forever) goals for achieving a healthy lifestyle. Examples could be taking 30 minutes to practice yoga each morning, adopting a new hobby like pottery classes or martial arts, or creating your own healthy meal plan each week. Making daily efforts to prioritize your overall well-being not only helps you manage stress but also reinforces your sense of self-worth and value.
Consistently revising your relapse prevention plan is essential to maintaining a healthy life in recovery, especially if you have just begun your new life in recovery within the last year. If you haven’t already created one, ask your support group counselor to help you make one today.
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