Put simply, a relapse is the worsening of a medical condition that had previously improved. A relapse to an addiction is when the person with the past addiction starts doing his or her addictive behavior again after a period of not doing it, known as abstinence. For example, someone who had completely stopped drinking for a period of time, say, six months, would be experiencing a relapse if they had a single alcoholic drink, as much as if they went on a drinking binge.
For people trying to control their behavior rather than trying to quit entirely, a relapse happens when the individual had got control over the behavior but is re-experiencing a period of uncontrolled behavior. For example, for someone trying to control their drinking, who had been drinking according to a relapse could result in a session of binge drinking. For a shopaholic who is trying to follow a spending plan, a relapse could be going on a shopping spree.
How Common Are Relapses to Addictive Behaviors?
Relapse is a hallmark of addiction; it is common, even expected, that people who are attempting to overcome an addiction will go through one or even several relapses before successfully quitting. Relapse is even considered a stage in the stages-of-change model, which predicts that people will cycle through a process of avoiding, considering quitting, taking active steps to quit and then relapsing. Sometimes people will cycle through the stages several times before quitting.
Is Relapse a Sign of Failure?
Despite the fact that relapse is a well-recognized aspect of recovery from an addiction, many people attempting to quit an addiction will feel they have failed if they relapse. They might abandon their efforts, feeling that quitting is too difficult for them. Even some treatment programs take a hard line on participants who relapse.
Accepting that relapse is a normal part of the process of recovery is a more helpful way of looking at relapse. Individuals and treatment programs that take this view are more successful, and in the long run, those who accept and work to try again after a relapse are more likely to eventually overcome their addiction.
How to Respond to a Relapse Positively
This is not to say that a relapse should not be taken seriously. Good treatment programs plan ahead for the possibility by including relapse prevention as part of the process. Relapse prevention helps people in recovery anticipate the factors that might cause them to engage in their addictive behavior again – and to plan ahead for these situations.
It is important to remain focused on recovery immediately after a relapse. Thinking through what led to the relapse is an important step in avoiding it from happening again. For example, were there any triggers that happened just before the relapse, either positive or negative?
Sometimes, stressful events can trigger a relapse, particularly if the addictive substance or behavior was used as a way of coping with stress. But happy events can also trigger a relapse, especially if others are celebrating with alcohol. It is important to put this in perspective and move on from the relapse with a stronger commitment to avoiding future relapses by avoiding or managing triggers before they occur.
Remember, if you are trying to quit, you should plan for and try to avoid relapse. But if you do relapse, you should accept that it is a normal part of quitting and resolve to learn from the experience.
By Elizabeth Hartney, PhD, Medically reviewed by a board-certified physician