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Why Did I Relapse?

Top Five Causes of Relapse and How to Avoid Them


Updated April 09, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It is common for people quitting or trying to control an addictive behavior to relapse at least once during recovery. Some people relapse several times before successfully overcoming their addictive behaviors. Many people do not understand why this happens - is it a lack of willpower, a lack of motivation or a lack of control over their own behavior?

Understanding why relapsing happens is the first step toward making your own relapse prevention plan. That's important to avoid or deal with situations that might cause you to relapse.

1. Stress

Image © Bob Smith / SXC

It sounds like a cliché, but stress is the top cause of relapse. Many people, whether they realize it or not, develop addictions as a maladaptive way of trying to cope with stress. The addictive behavior seems to provide temporary relief from stress, so they do it again and again, hoping to avoid stress completely.

You can't eliminate all the stress from your life, and nor should you. Research shows that a moderate amount of stress is psychologically healthy. But you can avoid situations of negative or extreme stress by making changes in your lifestyle, relationships and priorities.

You can also learn positive ways to successfully manage the stress that does occur in your life. There are many ways to do this. Central to them all is the use of healthy techniques that improve your overall wellness, such as improving your ability to rest and relax with such stress-control strategies as mindfulness and relaxation training; managing your time more effectively so that you are not operating in panic mode; and by increasing healthy behaviors, such as moderate exercise and healthy eating habits.

2. People or Places Connected to the Addictive Behavior

Image © DMH / Getty Images

One of the most obvious triggers for a relapse is being around people who shared your addictive behavior, and who are still engaging in it. Examples could include your old drinking buddies in the pub you went to every night; people you smoked marijuana with at your drug dealer's house; or, perhaps, fellow shopaholics at the mall. Most people in recovery know they should avoid these people and places, at least in the early days.

It tends to get more difficult when you happen to come across people or places that trigger your addiction, even though they are only related to the addiction indirectly. For example, someone who was abused at school and became addicted to drugs as a way to handle their distress may be triggered by seeing schools or even playgrounds. As this isn't a situation you can easily avoid on a long-term basis, it is important to have ways to handle your feelings when that happens, so that you have another way of coping besides relapsing to your addiction.

For many people, family members can be connected with the addiction, even if those family members were not directly involved in the addictive behavior. And while you may not be able to, or want to, avoid all future contact with family, it helps to keep in mind that seeing them may trigger your addictive behavior and make you feel more child-like and helpless. This is because most of your relationships with them occurred at an earlier stage of your development.

3. Negative or Challenging Emotions

Image © Daniel Diaz

Negative emotions are a normal part of life, and everyone experiences them to some extent on a daily basis. People with addictions need to have effective ways of tolerating, managing and rationalizing - or making sense of - their negative or challenging feelings.

People with addictions commonly cite frustration, anger, anxiety and loneliness as emotional triggers for relapse. Alcohol, drugs or addictive behaviors may provide some temporary relief from those feelings, but they will not make them go away. The feelings are part of a bigger cause in your life that you need to address.

Loneliness is a good example. Many people with addictions keep drinking or using drugs because they have an instant network of people who do the same thing when they go to a bar or drug dealer. But these relationships are based on an unhealthy way of coping and are often lacking in substance.

For example, if you are feeling isolated, forming strong relationships is the only way of dealing with your loneliness. If you feel lonely even with relationships, you may need to learn to tolerate feelings of being alone or disconnected from others, while improving the quality of the relationships you have.

4. Seeing or Sensing the Object of Your Addiction

Image © Romana Ferrer / SXC

During recovery from an addiction, a slight reminder of the object of your addiction can be a strong trigger for relapse. A whiff of cigarette or marijuana smoke while you are walking down the street, people drinking in bars or restaurants, a couple locked in an erotic embrace - whether in real life, on an advertisement or on the TV - are reminders that seem to be everywhere in the early stages of quitting.

While it makes sense to avoid these situations as much as possible, it is unrealistic to think you can do so for ever. What you need is to develop skills for managing your own urges and cravings. Having a substitute behavior, as well as doing relaxation techniques, are often very helpful in accomplishing this. But remember, those helpful skills take time to develop; eventually, they will become second nature.

5. Times of Celebration

Image © Donald Cook / SXC

While most of the situations that trigger relapses are negative, sometimes positive situations can be just as risky. Birthdays, parties, holidays and celebrations can be times when you feel happy and in control - and you think you can handle that one drink, that one smoke or that one mild flirtation with the attractive stranger. But can you keep it under control?

When you've been addicted, you often lose the capacity to know when to stop. So that one drink could become a binge, which can be particularly dangerous after a period of abstinence. That one hit of cocaine or heroin could cause an overdose if your tolerance is low. And treating yourself to buying a new pair of shoes you don't need could lead to a shopping spree that breaks the bank.

Having a buddy can be a good way of easing back into situations where you are at risk of relapse. It should be someone you trust and respect, and, ideally, someone who can kindly but firmly persuade you to stop what you are doing if you do start to relapse. Avoid going into situations where you are at high risk of relapse alone, as you might be surprised how quickly your resolve and good intentions disappear once the party gets started.

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Bowen, S., Chawla, N. & Marlatt, G. Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviors. New York: Guilford. 2011.

Hanson, P. The Joy of Stress: How to Make Stress Work for You, Andrews McMeel Publishing. 1987.

Herd1, N., Borland, R., & Hyland, A. "Predictors of smoking relapse by duration of abstinence: findings from the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey," Addiction, 104:2088–2099. 2009.

Le Fevre, M., Kolt, G., & Matheny, J. "Eustress, distress and their interpretation in primary and secondary occupational stress management interventions: which way first?" Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21:547-565. 2006.

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Addictions
  4. How to Quit
  5. Addiction Treatment
  6. Stages of Change and Motivational Interviewing
  7. Top Five Causes of Relapse and How to Avoid Them

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