Recognizing the Signs of a Relapse

Table of Contents

Recovery is challenging, whether you’re newly sober or you’ve been sober for years. People with substance use disorders work daily to keep from relapsing. With the help and support of relapse prevention therapy, you can understand the signs of relapse to know when to find help.

The Process of Relapse

It’s important to understand that relapse is a common part of the recovery process. Most people who take steps to recover from a drug or alcohol use disorder will end up relapsing at least once. Though relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed in recovery, it can be a significant obstacle to maintaining sobriety. Addiction is a chronic, lifelong condition, so the potential for relapse is always present.

Rather than being a single event, relapse is a process that begins long before someone decides to use substances again. The signs of a relapse start with negative behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes toward recovery.

Fortunately, these signs of a relapse can be spotted well before you or someone you care about begins drinking or using drugs again. If a relapse does occur, it’s essential to find treatment and support as quickly as possible.

Triggers and Challenges to Maintaining Sobriety

Often, relapse begins or accelerates because of an upsetting situation, event, or feeling that triggers substance use. Any increase in stress, for instance, can potentially be a trigger. Some common triggers include:

  • A stressful work or home environment
  • Being around people who drink or use drugs
  • Grief over the death of a loved one
  • The breakup of a romantic relationship
  • Job loss
  • Going to places that are associated with substance use
  • Strong emotions, like anger, frustration, or fear

Maintaining sobriety can also be especially challenging for someone who has just left a residential treatment program. Dealing with “real world” situations without drugs and alcohol can produce stress and anxiety.

Emotional Signs of a Relapse

The first stage of relapse is emotional. Before actively considering drugs or alcohol again, a person will often show emotional and behavioral changes that indicate possible relapse.

Intense Emotions

In the emotional stage, someone might feel unusually anxious, angry, overwhelmed, or distressed. They may have mood swings, grow defensive, or have trouble making good, clear decisions. Negative emotions are part of life, but they can be signs of relapse if they are strong and seem to last for a while.

Routine Interruptions

Another potential sign of relapse is when a person stops following their daily routine or practicing self-care. For instance, someone in the emotional stage of relapse may have poor eating and sleeping habits.


A third sign is when a person distances themselves from their support systems. They are less interested in continuing their recovery program or don’t think participating in recovery is a priority. They might avoid their friends and family members or skip social events. They may stop attending therapy and counseling appointments or even discontinue medical treatments.

Mental Signs of a Relapse

The second stage of relapse is mental. Someone in this stage will usually experience an internal struggle. Part of them wants to continue maintaining sobriety, while another part of them wants to return to substance use.

At this stage, a person may experience physical cravings for their substance of choice. They have conscious thoughts about using substances and may fantasize about or recall positive memories of their former substance use.

Sometimes, signs of relapse include spending time in places where they used drugs or alcohol or with people who also participated in drinking and drug use. A person in this stage may think they can return to social drinking or drug use without consequences.

Physical Signs of a Relapse

The third stage of relapse is physical. This stage is what most people think of when they hear the term “relapse.” It occurs when someone uses their substance of choice and breaks their sobriety streak.

Without a solid relapse prevention plan, someone may notice an opportunity to use substances and take advantage of it. They might believe they can control their drug or alcohol use. However, they risk experiencing guilt, shame, and disappointment after they’ve relapsed. In worst-case scenarios, someone who has relapsed may give in to their cravings and continue to use substances until they are back in active addiction.

Relapse Prevention Therapy at Southern Sky Recovery

Our substance abuse recovery programs provide clients with the support they need for the long term. Each of our program tracks—outpatient, intensive outpatient, and partial hospitalization—incorporates behavioral therapy techniques that teach clients how to manage stress and triggers in healthy, responsible ways. Relapse prevention is a cornerstone of our treatment, and we provide aftercare and alumni support once clients leave the program. Our outpatient program includes group meetings modeled after the 12-step process, a highly effective peer support model in recovery.
Call [Direct] or reach out online to learn how our empathy-driven, evidence-based recovery process can help you or a loved one stay on the road to sobriety.

Request a Confidential Callback


Find Out If Your Insurance Covers Our Program

We are In-Network With:

We also accept most major PPO insurance plans. Find out your personal options for treatment right now.

Call Now Button