Wasatch Recovery Treatment Center

Signs of Substance Abuse Relapse

After your loved one goes through rehab for a drug or alcohol addiction, you want to offer positivity and encouragement as they begin to navigate their recovery. But if you want to provide unconditional support, it’s important to recognize that sobriety is a lifelong effort — and setbacks are common. 

Relapse is a normal part recovery that affects as many as three in five people who seek treatment for a substance use disorder (SUD). Relapse doesn’t mean that treatment hasn’t worked; it’s simply an indication that it’s time to resume treatment or try a modified approach. 

As addiction experts, the team at Wasatch Recovery Treatment Center knows that being able to recognize the warning signs of relapse is the first step in helping your loved one recalibrate their recovery and get back on track. Here’s what to look out for. 

Understanding relapse

Drug and alcohol addiction is a chronic brain-centered disease with powerful psychological and social elements. Although it can’t be cured completely, it can be managed successfully through individualized treatment and ongoing support.  

Achieving sobriety is a monumental accomplishment, but maintaining it is a lifelong endeavor. Setbacks are a reality of recovery for many people, and relapse can come in different forms. 

A minor relapse is a “slip-up” that occurs with one-time drug or alcohol use followed by a return to sobriety. A full relapse is a complete regression into old patterns and habits of substance abuse. A series of minor slip-ups can easily lead to a full relapse. 

Relapse can happen anytime during recovery, including right after rehab or following years of sobriety. While it often seems to occur suddenly, most people experience gradual changes in their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors leading up to a relapse event.

Relapse warning signs

Relapse tends to occur when environmental or situational triggers prompt a strong urge to use. Common “relapse cues” include stressful life events, ongoing job or relationship stress, seeing others use drugs or alcohol (in person or on TV), and returning to a place connected to past drug or alcohol use. 

The warning signs of relapse fall into three main categories:  

Emotional changes

Before a relapse occurs, many people experience a fundamental shift in how they think or feel. Mental and emotional changes may be more subtle in the lead-up to relapse and more pronounced once relapse has occurred:

  • Uncharacteristic irritability 
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Eroded self-confidence
  • Disconnection from reality
  • Denial and defensiveness 

People heading toward or already in relapse may also have destructive thoughts that cause them to glorify their former habits and make unhealthy decisions. This can give rise to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, tension, and resentment.  

Behavioral changes

Rehab helps people learn how doing better helps them be better. When relapse is on the horizon or already underway, however, this healthy mindset tends to fade into the background and cause noticeable changes in behavior:

  • Lying and being secretive   
  • Support network avoidance 
  • Risky or impulsive actions
  • Neglect of healthy routines
  • Skipping recovery meetings
  • Return to previous habits

People on the verge of relapse or in the thick of it tend to avoid supportive family and friends in favor of reconnecting with the social groups they knew before recovery. 

Physical changes

Arguably the most dramatic sign of relapse, physical changes may mean that your loved one is using drugs or alcohol regularly, possibly to the point of renewed dependency. A full relapse and a total loss of structure can lead to several striking physical changes:

  • Sudden weight gain or loss
  • Irregular eating and sleeping patterns
  • Neglected hygiene and appearance
  • Bloodshot or watery eyes; pinpoint pupils
  • Tremors; loss of coordination
  • New or worsening health problems

You may also notice a “chemical odor” on their breath or clothes or marks on their skin from needles. All physical changes signal the need for an immediate call to action.    

A pivotal call to action

Relapse is a setback, not a failure. Just as a person who experiences a relapse is not a failure, the treatment program or method that helped them achieve recovery did not fail them. What’s more, relapse doesn’t mean that a person’s earlier progress in recovery is lost or undone.   

When relapse is seen for what it truly is — a call to action — your loved one can get the help they need to learn from their setback, overcome it, and get back to sober living. Help may mean returning to rehab, modifying their treatment approach, or trying another course of action altogether.  

To learn more about the rehab and recovery programs at Wasatch Recovery Treatment Center, give us a call today. We have an intensive outpatient and sober living facility in East Sandy, Utah, and a residential treatment center in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. 

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