5 Key Components of a Relapse Prevention Plan

Last Updated on December 14, 2021

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.

What Qualifies as a Relapse?

A return to substance abuse after a period of sobriety qualifies as a relapse. However, the definition of relapse varies from person to person. For example, some people may believe that a single use of alcohol or drugs is just a “lapse” instead of a full-blown relapse. Although many people think of a relapse as a singular event (i.e. having a beer after weeks or months of sobriety), experts view relapse as a three-part process.

The three stages of relapse are:

  • Emotional: Hiding emotions, not wanting to go to recovery meetings, avoiding friends and family, slacking on self-care
  • Mental: Fantasizing about using drugs or alcohol, having cravings to use, glorifying old days of drug use, searching for relapse opportunities, planning a relapse
  • Physical: Using drugs or alcohol (even just once)

Even if the physical act of using drugs or alcohol only occurs once, a person likely needs to return to treatment to address the emotional and mental backslides they experienced.

Why Is Relapse So Dangerous?

The most severe danger associated with relapse is a person’s loss of tolerance, which can easily lead to overdose or death. When you abuse a drug, your brain adjusts and compensates for its effects. Once you stop using it, your brain will return to its normal functioning fairly quickly. Just being sober for a short time can cause these changes and your tolerance will dissipate quickly. If you decide to use drugs again, even a small or moderate amount can be lethal.

Is It Normal to Relapse?

Sometimes. If you stop following your treatment plan, you are much more likely to relapse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse rates for substance use disorders are similar to rates for other chronic illnesses like hypertension and asthma. An estimated 40 to 60 percent of people in recovery may relapse but that doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work. Instead, it’s a sign that the treatment plan needs to be revisited and revised.

How Do You Stop a Relapse?

There are several ways you can work to stop a relapse if you feel one coming.

  • When you have cravings, distract yourself with other activities until the cravings pass.
  • Know your triggers, recognize them, and actively avoid them.
  • Ground yourself with meditation.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Ask a friend, sponsor, or treatment professional for help.

If a relapse happens, it’s much more important to focus on your response to it rather than fixating on the relapse itself. Most likely, you already know why it happened. Reaching out to your support team right away rather than trying to hide it is how you will learn from it and move forward in your recovery instead of being hindered by it.

What Is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

A relapse prevention plan is a written plan that helps you recognize the signs of relapse, avoid triggers, and prevent a return to chronic substance abuse. After you complete a treatment program, your recovery specialist or sponsor should help you create a written relapse prevention plan. It will likely include a detailed plan of action to help you initiate a personal self-care plan, identify techniques you will use to deal with urges and cravings, and create a list of people you will reach out to if you do use drugs or alcohol.

Why Do I Need a Relapse Prevention 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
  • Certain sights and smells

If a relapse happens, it’s not the end of your 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.

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Creating an Effective Relapse Prevention Plan

Creating a 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 before you were in drug rehab? 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.

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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 rehab 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.

How to Develop a Relapse Prevention Plan

The best way to develop a relapse prevention plan is to work one-on-one with a treatment specialist, counselor, or your sponsor to create one. He or she can help help you devise a plan that includes strategies for:

  • How you will consistently practice self-care to prevent emotional relapse
  • How you will deal with urges and cravings when they arise
  • The people or person you will alert if you use drugs or alcohol

Once you have created a relapse prevention plan, consistently revising it 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.

At Nova Recovery Center, a relapse prevention plan is an essential part of our treatment process for every client. Our compassionate addiction treatment team at our rehab in Austin works one-on-one with each individual to create a solid and detailed plan of action that will help reduce the likelihood of relapse after rehab and support healthy behaviors and practices moving forward.

Creating a relapse prevention plan and continuing your treatment with an intensive outpatient rehab in Austin, Texas or sober living program can help you stay on the right track after you get sober. Call (512) 605-2955 to learn more about our Austin recovery center and services today.


  1. http://lib.adai.washington.edu/clearinghouse/downloads/TAP-19-Counselors-Manual-for-Relapse-Prevention-with-Chemically-Dependent-Criminal-Offenders-109.pdf
  2. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh23-2/151-160.pdf
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4080483/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674771/
  6. https://archives.drugabuse.gov/publications/behavioral-therapies-development-program-btdp/introduction
  7. http://www.tgorski.com/gorski_articles/developing_a_relapse_prevention_plan.htm
  8. http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun01/relapse.aspx

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