What to Do After a Relapse

Relapse is always a possibility at any point in recovery. Although your risk of relapse drops the longer you’re in recovery, the risk never falls to zero. Estimates of relapse rates vary widely between studies, but a frequently cited estimate from the Journal of the American Medical Association is that between 40 and 60 percent of people who get treatment for drug or alcohol addiction will relapse within the first year of leaving treatment. Some estimates are much higher and some are much lower. What seems clear is that your risk falls the longer you stay sober. On average, there’s a big drop after a year, and another big drop after five years.

There’s some disagreement over whether relapse should be considered part of recovery itself. People who support this view say that expecting someone to never relapse sets an unreasonable expectation that puts unnecessary pressure on people in recovery and makes the people who do relapse feel more discouraged and less likely to try again. Critics of this view believe it gives people in recovery permission, or at least an excuse, to relapse. What’s more, relapses can be extremely dangerous. People who have been sober for a while no longer have a tolerance for a substance. Most overdoses happen after a period of sobriety.

Whether or not you consider relapse part of recovery, it’s better to avoid relapse if you can. However, relapses do happen. Although it can be extremely discouraging, a relapse is not a permanent failure. Many people relapse several times before sustaining recovery. The key is not to give up. Here’s what to do after a relapse to give yourself the best chance of success in recovery.

Figure out where you are.

Not all relapses are the same. Some people have one drink, regret it immediately, then get back on the wagon. Some people get drunk, wake up the next day and decide to get sober again. At the other end of the scale, someone might relapse and feel like as long as they’re using again they might as well go all out. They might keep using for days, weeks, months, or years. This is a total relapse. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle and the seriousness of your relapse determines what you should do next.

Get sober as soon as possible.

As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Whatever the circumstances of your relapse, the most important thing is to get sober again as soon as possible. How you do this depends on how extensive your relapse was. If you drank for one night, passed out, then woke up hungover and regretting your mistake, getting sober is simply a matter of deciding you’re not going to drink again.

Get to a 12-step meeting as soon as possible and let your group know what happened. Many people are reluctant to do this because they’re embarrassed and they feel like they’ve let their group down. They feel like they’ll be judged for relapsing, so they might actively avoid going to meetings, which only makes the problem worse. Everyone in your group has been in your shoes. They will welcome you back; that’s what the group is for. It may be hard to go back to one day sober, especially if you only had one or two drinks, but you’ll be better off in the long run if you’re honest with your group. It’s important to treat even a minor slip-up seriously because even if it seems like no big deal, you might mistakenly take it as evidence that you can now drink in moderation. One slip up might turn into a couple of drinks now and then, a couple of drinks a day, then, before you know it, you’re back where you started.

If you had a more extended relapse, getting sober again might not be so simple, but it is still urgent. As noted above, a relapse is when you’re at highest risk for overdose. Many people also feel ashamed and discouraged after a relapse, which may make it even worse. If you’ve started to build a tolerance again, you may have to go through medical detox to get sober. This is especially true if you have previously experienced difficulty detoxing.

Forgive yourself.

No one feels good about a relapse. You might feel like you’ve wasted all the effort you put into recovery, that you’ve disappointed all the people who care about you, and that it proves you can’t do anything right. While it’s normal to feel disappointed, dwelling on it doesn’t help. Try to remember that you’re not alone; 40 to 60 percent of people relapse in the first year. Recovery is hard and you always knew there would be setbacks. More importantly, shame only makes it harder to get back on track. Shame makes you feel like you deserve to be punished, so try to take a more compassionate position towards yourself. You made a mistake, like everyone does, but you can forgive yourself and move on.

Analyze what happened.

When you’ve stopped digging and gotten to a stable place, the next thing to do is figure out what went wrong. It’s a good idea to actually write a narrative of everything that happened leading up to your relapse, being as detailed as possible about specific events and how you felt. It’s also a good idea to talk it over with your therapist or 12-step group. Did you feel overwhelmed by life stress? Did something happen like a job loss or divorce? Were you feeling depressed or lonely? A relapse can be a valuable source of information, so get some different perspectives and learn as much as you can from it.

Make a new plan and try again.

When you’ve analyzed what went wrong, make a new plan. Enlist the help of your therapist, group, sponsor, or family, and try again. Take into account what you’ve learned and make adjustments. For people who relapse repeatedly, the problem is often that treatment just didn’t last long enough or that they didn’t get adequate support while transitioning back to normal life.



Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.

Signs You May Be Heading for Relapse

Relapse is a common danger in addiction recovery. A frequently cited study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that between 40 and 60 percent of people treated for addiction will relapse within a year. In fact, there is an ongoing debate about whether relapse should be considered part of recovery. Proponents of this view argue that acknowledging relapse as a normal part of recovery makes people feel less discouraged after a relapse and more willing to try again. Critics argue that this view can undermine a person’s resolve to stay sober, that a relapse can be extremely discouraging, and, perhaps most importantly, overdose are most common after relapse. Whatever your position, one thing is clear: it’s best to avoid relapse if you can.

Contrary to popular belief, relapse doesn’t usually just happen. It’s not typically the case that someone with a year of sobriety will arbitrarily decide to go on a bender. There may be cases where a sudden shock leads to a relapse, but typically relapse is a gradual process with distinct phases. It’s an idea that grows over time, perhaps invisibly, until one day you take the final step of using again. If you are familiar with this process, you may be able to correct course before a relapse happens. The earlier you make adjustments, the more likely you will maintain your recovery. Here are the typical phases leading to relapse.


Relapse often begins on an emotional level. Feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed every once in a while is normal, but if you feel that way often, it may be a sign that something is wrong. Perhaps you were enthusiastic and optimistic about recovery at first, but now you feel disillusioned or cynical. Twelve-step veterans often call this “stinking thinking” and know it’s an early warning sign that relapse is coming.

There are several reasons you may be experiencing emotional turbulence. It could be that life is throwing a lot at you and you’re having trouble coping. It could be that your expectations of recovery were too high. Perhaps you thought life would be great once you quit drugs and alcohol, but progress isn’t coming as fast as you expected and you feel disillusioned. Sometimes it just takes a while to shake the anxiety and depression caused by long-term substance use.

When you start to feel this way, it’s crucial to recognize it and adjust. Talk to a therapist or share with your group. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general, seek social support and focus on healthy coping strategies.


If your emotional state keeps getting worse, you might start having thoughts of relapse. That is, you might start thinking about using again. Even if you don’t really plan to use again, you might start reminiscing about the good times when you drank or used drugs with friends, conveniently forgetting all the bad times. You might start thinking that you’ve done so well for so long that you probably have your addiction under control and you can start using again in moderation. When you get farther down the path of mental relapse, you may start bargaining with yourself, entertaining ideas such as rewarding yourself with a beer during lunch if you finish a work project by Friday. You may start spending time with old friends who still drink or use. You’ve progressed very far in the mental stage when you start coming up with excuses for relapsing or make a specific plan to relapse.

If you get to this point, your recovery is in crisis. If you want to stay sober, you have to make a change right away. Talk to your therapist, call your sponsor, or go to meetings. This is your last opportunity to save your recovery.

One powerful antidote to the mental stage of relapse is to “play the tape.” This is a strategy common in 12-step circles. The idea is simple: you force yourself to see all the consequences of relapse. When you’re in the mental stage of relapse, all you think about is the relief you can get from using again or all the fun times you had while drinking or using drugs. Your brain leaves out all the awful consequences of addiction. When you play the tape, you force yourself to remember your substance use as it really was. Think beyond the initial relief, to the disappointment and remorse that will soon follow. Remember in vivid detail the worst moments of addiction and why you finally decided to get help.


Physical relapse is when you actually start drinking or using again. As noted above, this isn’t typically a fluke or accident. If you actually relapse, you’ve probably been planning it for a while and at some point made a definite decision. It’s important to note that not all relapses are the same. Sometimes people slip up, say, by having a drink or several drinks, regretting it immediately, then going back into recovery. Others go all in and it may take weeks, months, or years, before they’ll consider quitting again.

Although relapse is discouraging, and possibly dangerous, a relapse does not mean failure. By one estimate, 90 percent of people with alcohol use disorder fail in recovery at least once before sustaining recovery long term. Many people do succeed in recovery after several failed attempts. The important thing is to try again as soon as possible. Learn what you can from the relapse and try to correct for it the next time. Often, people who keep relapsing need a different approach, such as long-term treatment with extensive follow-up support.


Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.

Secrets Behind Relapse: Why Some People Struggle to Recover

It can be incredibly difficult to take that first step towards recovery, but once you’re in it, what about relapse? A commonly feared term, relapse occurs when a person takes a few steps back towards addictive behaviors after having practiced abstinence in recovery. Misconceptions surrounding relapse indicate that a person is a “failure” or that they’re “weak” if they revert back to drinking or using substances again, but research has shown us that relapse may be quite common in recovery – especially during the first year, when a person is most vulnerable to cravings.

There are some instances, however, when a person truly doesn’t return to treatment after a relapse; and in these cases, the important question would be, “What is the marked difference between someone who relapses and returns to treatment, versus someone who doesn’t?” Various factors are what indicate the difference between these two scenarios, and knowing them could very well prevent you – or a loved one – from going down a path that doesn’t lead to healing and restoration.

Differentiating Factors

Jason Wahler, one of Lauren Conrad’s love interests in the reality show “Laguna Beach,” told Insider just last year that he’s been 39 days sober after having previously relapsed from 3+ years of sobriety. He explained,

“…I became complacent and I was blindsided.”

Even still, with having had a brief stint in relapse, he was able to return towards his goal of sobriety – but for those who relapse and never return, it’s often because of one of the following reasons (as elabroated on by Medium):

  •    They’re not being honest with themselves about the level of severity of their addiction
  •    A person is unsure whether or not recovery is even for them
  •    An individual is unwilling to change their life altogether

The reality is that everyone is different – and while one reason may be strong enough for a person to never return to treatment, another may be just a brief stage at which the person isn’t ready to seek help quite yet. Last year, The New York Times Magazine suggested that some people in recovery have mental health concerns alongside a substance use disorder (SUD), and this makes it even more challenging for them to stay in treatment because they’re battling the symptoms of two conditions.

Altogether, recovery is a complete lifestyle change – and those in recovery must be willing to ride the ups and downs that go along with restoration of their mind, body and spirit in order to build a life of sobriety. In some instances, the change towards recovery is so drastic that a person simply can’t imagine enjoying their life without substances; of course, this perception can be changed over time, but in the “thick” of changing lifestyle habits, it can certainly be difficult. Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, told U.S. Health News,

“Humans have a host of self-destructive behaviors; we do it with food, with lack of exercise, with smoking. How many of us haven’t resumed behaviors we pledged to stop? Changing your behavior is hard.”

Hope for the Future

Research is now showing that even if a person isn’t voluntarily wanting treatment, they can still recover; motivational enhancement therapy (MET) can greatly help a person weigh out the “benefits” and “costs” of seeking help, and detoxification in and of itself can even help a person gain clarity on the scope of their addiction. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that while there are several factors that can hold a person back in recovery, there are many more benefits that can motivate individuals to continue seeking help, even after a relapse:

  •    Having the support of family members to reinforce recovery goals
  •    Identifying positive role models to connect with and rely on in troubling times
  •    Connecting with others in their recovery program, including addiction recovery leaders and their therapist
  •    Building spirituality through 12-Step programs as well as holistic practices, such as yoga, meditation, art therapy, massage therapy, equine therapy, etc.

Networks are incredibly important, and supporting a person who has relapsed could be just enough to encourage them to get back into treatment and push harder than ever before towards their health and wellbeing.

No matter what you’re going through, you’re not alone. There are so many people in recovery who have relapsed and gotten back up again – because recovery is much like life; it’s a learning process. You’re going to go through so many different emotions as you learn how to balance everything, but you have to continue pushing forward even when you feel uncertain about where your life is heading. Don’t give up on yourself – because there are many people out there who believe you can succeed.



Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.