What to Do After a Relapse

Man holding his head in his hands in front of a glass of alcohol; showing signs of a relapse

Verywell / Laura Porter

A relapse is the worsening of a medical condition that had previously improved. When it comes to addiction, it refers to a person engaging in addictive behavior after a period of abstinence.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine  (ASAM) defines relapse as the recurrence of behavioral or other substantive indicators of active disease after a period of remission.

During a relapse, a person returns to using a substance. A single use might cause a person to feel unmotivated, guilty, or ashamed of their actions. It can also result in intense cravings that then continue to further use. After a relapse, getting back on track as soon as possible is important.

Examples of Relapses

For example, someone who had completely stopped drinking for a period of time, say six months, would be experiencing a relapse if they began drinking in an unhealthy manner. If they had just one drink, they might be considered as having a "slip," but not a full relapse.

For people trying to control their behavior rather than trying to quit entirely, a relapse happens when the individual had gotten control over the behavior but is re-experiencing a period of uncontrolled behavior.

For example, someone trying to control their drinking, who had been drinking according to relapse could result in a session of binge drinking. For a shopaholic trying to follow a spending plan, a relapse could be going on a shopping spree.

Relapses can also occur in physical health and mental health conditions. In a health condition, it would involve the return of disease symptoms. In mental health, it would involve the return of symptoms after a period of recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How Common Are Relapses?

Relapse is a hallmark of addiction. It is common, even expected, that people who are attempting to overcome 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.

The Stages of Relapse

In order to understand how to prevent relapse, it is essential to first understand the relapse process itself. Relapse isn't a sudden event; it is a process that occurs over a period of time which can range from weeks to even months. 

The stages of relapse include:

  • Emotional relapse: During this stage, people are not thinking about using a substance, but their behaviors and emotions might be placing them at a higher risk of future use. For example, they might be experiencing isolation, anxiety, poor self-care, and low social support.
  • Mental relapse: During this stage, people are thinking about using the substance and perhaps even missing the people and places they associated with their substance use.
  • Physical relapse: As the name suggests, this stage involves actually using the substance once again.

Causes of Relapse

Relapses can have a range of causes that can be triggered by internal and external factors. Some common causes:

  • Mental health issues: Having a co-occurring mental health condition can increase the risk of relapse. People may turn to substances or behaviors to cope with the symptoms of their condition.
  • Chronic health issues: Medical conditions can also lead to relapse, particularly if a person is using substances to alleviate pain or cope with stress related to their condition.
  • Cravings: While cravings tend to lessen with time, they can be strong and difficult to resist, particularly at times when a person is more susceptible to giving in to temptation.
  • Situational factors: Certain situations, places, or people can also cause relapse. Spending time in places where a person used to use a substance or being around people still engaging in the behavior can contribute.

Relapse Risk Factors

Risk factors that can increase the likelihood of relapse include:

  • Untreated mental health conditions
  • Being around people who are using substances
  • Poor coping skills
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor social support
  • Lack of self-efficacy
  • Low mood
  • Exposure to triggering situations
  • Sleep problems
  • Lack of professional treatment and recovery programs

Relapse Treatments

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 therapy (RPT) was developed over 40 years ago by G. Alan Marlatt, PhD, and Judith Gordon, PhD. This approach 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.

There are three primary areas of focus in RPT:

  • Behavioral techniques/lifestyle changes: to help people establish habits that enhance recovery and prevent relapse, including regular sleep, exercise, and relaxation strategies.
  • Coping skills training: to help people cope with cravings and urges as well as potential high-risk situations and emotions.
  • Cognitive therapy interventions: to help people reframe how they think about relapse, so they can view it as an opportunity to learn rather than a deep personal flaw.

Coping With a Relapse

If you or someone you know experiences a relapse, there are things that you can do to cope and get help.

  • Get medical attention: Because people lose their tolerance for a substance, they are at a greater risk of experiencing an overdose if they relapse. If they are experiencing signs of overdose, call 911 to immediately take them to an emergency room.
  • Provide support: Social support from friends and loved ones is critical. This can include family members or friends, but it can also include the individual's primary care provider, their mutual support groups, or their treatment program.
  • Be patient: It often takes several attempts before successfully quitting a behavior or substance. Relapses are common, and the best thing you can do is help the individual stay safe, get back on track, and encourage them to stick with it over the long term.

It is important to remain focused on recovery immediately after a relapse. Thinking through what led to the relapse is an important step in preventing 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 to cope with stress. But happy events can also trigger a relapse, especially if others celebrate with alcohol.

It is important to put this in perspective. People can move on from the relapse with a stronger commitment to avoiding future relapses by avoiding or managing triggers before they occur.

How to Prevent Relapse

Relapse prevention is important in recovering from a substance, alcohol, or behavioral addiction. While each person's recovery plan will differ based on their needs, some strategies that can help reduce your risk for relapse include:

Identify and Avoid Triggers

Work on learning to recognize the variables contributing to relapses. This can include moods, attitudes, situations, behaviors, and environmental changes that tend to precede a relapse.

Get Treatment and Support

Participating in a recovery program and building a support network is essential to preventing relapse. In addition to seeking professional treatment, you might consider joining a 12-step program or other mutual support groups.

Getting appropriate treatment for co-occurring mental health and medical conditions can also help reduce your risk of relapse.

Care for Yourself

Caring for your mental and physical health is critical for effective relapse prevention. Work on adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and plenty of sleep.

Manage Stress Levels

It is also important to find ways to deal with stress that don't involve relying on alcohol, substances, or harmful behaviors. Stress relievers that might help you manage acute and long-term stress include yoga, deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness practices.


In addition to getting professional treatment, avoiding your triggers, finding social support, caring for yourself, and managing stress can help prevent future relapse.

A Word From Verywell

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. One goal of treatment is to help people learn to recognize the signs of relapse during the early stages to increase the chances of a successful recovery.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Parks GA, Marlatt GA. Chapter 6: Relapse prevention therapy. In The Essentials Handbook of Treatment and Prevention of Alcohol Problems. Heather N, Stockwell T. (Eds.). Wiley; 2003.

  2. Guenzel N, McChargue D. Addiction relapse prevention. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

  3. Hendershot CS, Witkiewitz K, George WH, Marlatt GA. Relapse prevention for addictive behaviorsSubst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2011;6(1):17. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-6-17

  4. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Reducing relapse risk.

  5. Melemis SM. Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. Yale J Biol Med. 2015;88(3):325-332.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.