In the context of addictive behaviors, a relapse occurs when the addict resumes his or her addictive behavior after a period of abstinence. For people trying to control their behavior rather than trying to quit entirely, a relapse is a period of uncontrolled behavior. For example, for someone trying to control their drinking, 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.
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.
Yet 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.
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.
So 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.