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What Should You Do After a Relapse?

Relapse is unfortunately common when you’re trying to overcome a substance use disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people will relapse within a year of treatment. Although relapse can be dangerous and discouraging and should be avoided if possible, it’s also nothing to be ashamed of. The nature of addiction is that it’s hard to quit. The good news is that people do sustain recovery even after several relapses. Here are some tips for getting back on track after a relapse.

Reach Out for Support

First, reach out to someone you trust. Your reflex will probably be to isolate. You may feel ashamed or embarrassed. You may feel like you can get it together and no one has to know. Fight that impulse and ask for help. There are two primary reasons for this. First, shame, deception, and isolation are habits of addiction. Cutting yourself off from your support system, whether from shame or a misplaced determination to be self-reliant only takes you further in the wrong direction. Owning your mistake, being open about it, and asking for help can be hard but it’s a firm step in the right direction.

The other reason is that you actually do need help. No one recovers alone and this is especially true following relapse when your situation may feel even more hopeless than it did the first time you got sober. Reach out to your therapist, your sponsor, your 12-Step group, or a friend or relative you trust. It’s easier to get back on track if you have someone on your side and it also gives you a greater sense of accountability.

Limit the Damage

After a relapse, a lot of people take the view of, “Well, I’ve ruined my recovery already, so I might as well go all the way.” This is a classic case of all-or-nothing thinking, one of the common cognitive distortions identified in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It is frustrating to feel like you have to start over and some aspects of 12-Step programs, such as starting over on your sober days, make it feel like nothing you accomplished before relapse matters.

However, it’s important to ask yourself, “How can I improve my situation now?” Although you may have slipped and had a few drinks with dinner or maybe gone on a week-long bender or whatever, continuing in that behavior will only make your situation worse. The sooner you are able to get sober again and assess your situation, the better position you will be in to resume your recovery.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

One of the biggest challenges of bouncing back after a relapse is dealing with the challenging emotions and self-criticism. You may be thinking something like, “How could I be so stupid?” or “I’ll never be able to stay sober,” or “What’s the point of even trying?” It’s normal to feel discouraged but it doesn’t help. On the other hand, “chin up” sort of thinking doesn’t really help either. Trying to stay positive sometimes only adds to your frustration. Instead, try acknowledging the facts: About half of people relapse after treatment and many of those people are able to stay sober on subsequent attempts.

Next, try extending yourself a bit of compassion. Compassion is not about pretending everything is fine, but rather about acknowledging that you can make mistakes and still be worthy of love and happiness. Instead of beating yourself up over a relapse, imagine how you would treat your best friend who had just relapsed and felt awful about it. Try extending some of that compassion to yourself too.

Analyze What Went Wrong

Perhaps the most crucial part of bouncing back after relapse is not losing the lesson. There are many potential hazards in recovery from addiction. Some of them are foreseeable and others aren’t. Analyzing what went wrong can provide valuable information for your next attempt. It might help to write about what happened. Where were you? Who were you with? How were you feeling? What were you thinking about? What was going on in your life more generally? Had you been sticking to your recovery plan? If not, why not?

You may discover that it was something simple like you got too busy at work and started skipping meetings. Or it could be something you had little or no control over, such as the unexpected death of a loved one. Sometimes you’re just not ready for what life throws at you. The more you can learn, the better you can adapt your recovery plan to account for those possibilities.

Look for the Silver Lining

It’s frustrating to feel like you have to start all over. A lot of people feel like they don’t have it in them. However, it may help to think about what you have going for you that you didn’t have last time you got sober. For example, you probably have some sober friends, you know what to expect at 12-Step meetings, you may have a therapist already, you may have resources at your disposal from the treatment program you attended, you may be aware of a mental health issue that needs attention, and so on. In short, it’s not your first rodeo. Thinking about everything you have going for you will give you more confidence going forward.

Try Again

Finally, when you’ve assessed your situation and figured out how you might do better in the future, try again. Exactly what you do will depend on your individual situation. If you had a minor slip, you can probably just go back to your recovery plan–with the proper modifications–go back to attending meetings, and so on. If you had a more extensive relapse, you may need to consider going back into treatment at some level.

Relapse is always a setback in recovery from addiction but it doesn’t have to be a failure. Plenty of people have to try several times to get sober but eventually succeed. Whether or not you ultimately have a long recovery depends on how you respond to a relapse. If you learn from your mistakes and try again, your long-term chances are good.

At Enlightened Solutions, we know that recovery is a process that never ends. We do everything we can to help our clients learn the skills they need to stay sober and help them transition back to normal life. We offer partial care, intensive outpatient services, relapse prevention, and sober living services to help make recovery last. To learn more, call us at 833-801-5483.

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