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Preventing Relapse

Understanding the nature of relapse is a central component of a dual disorders recovery plan. These tips will help clients identify and manage their triggers.

Both substance use and psychiatric illnesses are disorders that fluctuate over time with ups and downs. Sometimes symptoms are well controlled, and at other times they may worsen and a person is said to be relapsing.

Although relapse can be a part of the recovery process, it can also cause a lot of disruption and difficulty for people and their support systems. It is helpful to have a relapse plan to try to prevent relapse. If a relapse does occur, it is important to review and sometimes revise the plan.

Defining Relapse

A relapse of alcohol and drug use means an abstinent person returns to using substances. The term slip means an abstinent person uses substances on one occasion and then returns to abstinence.

A relapse of mental illness means a person's symptoms have returned and their functioning is decreased. Sometimes symptoms can worsen but the person's functioning is not affected; this is not considered a relapse.

Psychiatric and substance use disorders often interact and worsen each other. Relapses of these disorders often occur together, but each disorder may relapse alone too.

Relapse Process

Relapses do not usually occur "out of the blue." They tend to follow a sequence of events that act as a trigger. Triggers are external things like "people, places, and things" that increase a person's likelihood of relapse. For example, being at a party where substances are being used may trigger a person to drink or use drugs again.

Identifying Triggers

In order to identify trigger situations for relapses of substance use, it can be helpful to discuss past relapses and situations related to them. What are some trigger situations that you have experienced in the past? Based on your past relapses of substance use, identify the most important trigger situations for yourself.

Dealing with Triggers

Once you have identified triggering situations, make a plan to deal with two or three of the most common situations. When you develop a plan for dealing with triggers, consider the following four questions:

  • Can the situation be avoided? If so, how?
  • How can you refuse offers to use substances?
  • How can you end conflict to reduce stress?
  • How can you manage stress in your life?

Excerpted and adapted from IDDT Recovery Life Skills Program: A Group Approach to Relapse Prevention and Healthy Living, Hazelden, 2011, by Lindy Fox, M.A., LADC

Fact Sheets

Download these PDFs for more information about the following disorders:

This fact sheet can help explain the causes of co-occurring disorders:

Professional Development

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