What Is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

Meeting for mental health group therapy sitting in a circle

Vladimir Vladimirov/E+/Getty

A relapse prevention plan is used to help keep a person from using a substance after they have decided to quit. It is one of many tools used by individuals recovering from a substance use disorder.

A relapse prevention plan includes various strategies and techniques, such as identifying personal behaviors, to help reduce the risk of a relapse following treatment for substance use disorder.

What Is a Relapse?

A relapse occurs when someone starts reusing a drug after a period of abstinence. Before a relapse occurs, there are usually warning signs. It’s a process that often starts with feelings and thoughts and can include cravings. The three stages of relapse include:

  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Physical

“Relapses can occur for many reasons. Sometimes they are brought on by triggering events or situations, such as stress or major life events. Other times relapse can be a result of individuals not taking their recovery seriously and not engaging in the appropriate treatment,” says Britt Gottlich PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist at Fifth Avenue Psychiatry

To prevent a relapse, you will want to remove triggers, including places, people, or purchases that may bring about urges to use again. Some warning signs of a potential relapse, according to Gottlich, could include secretiveness, disengaging from treatment, and being overly arrogant about sobriety.

What’s Included in a Relapse Prevention Plan

A relapse prevention plan must be customized to the individual and their specific needs, preferences, and surrounding resources and support system.

In your plan, you should answer the following:

  • Which substance(s) are you most concerned about?
  • Why did you stop using these substances and why do you want to avoid a relapse? Keep your “why” front of mind.
  • What are your short and long-term goals? These can be personal, professional, or related to your recovery.
  • Which places or people do you associate with substance use? Consider how easy or difficult it is to avoid them. Is there a situation in which seeing a person or visiting a place is unavoidable? If yes, how do you plan to handle this situation?
  • What feelings or thoughts could lead you to relapse? Which ones are difficult for you to process? These could include anger, frustration, fear. Consider which feelings trigger a craving or desire to use.
  • What healthy coping strategies do you find most beneficial? This could include morning walks, meditations, stretching, calling a friend on a routine basis, or taking a long bath. You should have a comprehensive list of things that you can pull from.
  • How can you avoid boredom, loneliness, or impulsivity? How can you cope with cravings?
  • What does your support system look like? Who are the people you trust to help you through difficult thoughts or feelings? How can you build stronger connections with your friends, family, or community? 
  • What are the consequences associated with relapsing?
  • What recovery treatments or programs do you prefer?
  • If you’re considering acting on a thought or feeling, who can you call? This can be a friend, but it can also be a helpline.

“There should always be a plan and skills in place,'' Gottlich said. Once you’ve made your relapse prevention plan, share it with friends, family, and the people you live with, so they can provide support, but also remove triggers from the home. Share it with the people you spend a lot of the time with, including those who have used substances with you in the past, so they can be aware. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol or substance use, you can call SAMHSA's National Helpline, which is free, confidential, and available 24/7. Call 1-800-662-4357 or send your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U).

Other Steps to Take

In addition to establishing a relapse prevention plan, individuals with a substance use disorder should have a treatment plan in place. Treatment could include individual therapy, group therapy, such as AA meetings, and/or psychiatry, said Gottlich. 

“A major aspect of substance abuse treatment is accountability, which is why treatment is so important,” said Gottlich. “Substance abuse is a lifelong disease. The first few months to a year can be the hardest, but it does get easier over time.”

You may not plan to relapse, but that doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible to one. If you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, it’s important to have a plan written out and shared with others, such as friends, family members, or members of your professional care team. 

By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing instructor, and advocate for mental health, women's issues, and more.