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Relapse: 5 Common Pitfalls in Addiction Recovery and How to Avoid Them

By Brian McAlister

The relapse rates for substance abusers are staggering. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people relapse during their recovery from drug addiction. Not only that, but over 90 percent of all people attending a traditional rehab relapse within six months. That must mean that relapse is a natural part of the addiction recovery process, right? Wrong.

Not only is relapse not a necessary part of the recovery journey, it’s fully preventable if you know the common pitfalls. It’s not easy but can be done. Here are five top pitfalls and how to avoid them.

1. Your Emotions Play a Key Role in Addiction Relapse

One major cause of relapse is inability to manage our emotions. There is fear and anxiety associated with living without the one thing that has been our main coping strategy. Guilt and shame may cause us to give up prematurely because we feel we’re a lost cause. Depression can sink us into isolation, where we don’t get the support that we need to stay sober. Anger and resentment may prompt self-destructive behavior, where we do things that we may later regret. Emotional pain is the best friend of change.

What you can do: Learning to responsibly process our emotions is a habit that can be developed. Start by recognizing emotional triggers that have a negative influence on your thoughts and behaviors. Then set a strategy for dealing with those emotional triggers. The easiest way to stay the course is to emotionally associate massive amounts of discomfort and suffering with the habit or belief you want to change. Then, associate overwhelming joy and gratification with your new, more empowering behavior.

2. Social Settings with Old Friends May Prompt Old Behaviors

Relapse is the end result when we let our misguided egos convince us that things will be different this time. They won’t. If we associate with the same friends that use drugs, chances are that we will choose to use again, too. It’s not possible for addicts to have “just one” or do it “just this one time.” Even one use is the gateway to relapse.

What you can do: Avoid your former friend group of addicts and any situations that may incorporate drugs or alcohol. If you’re tempted to join them, think of your worst moments under the influence of drugs and alcohol. When your disease reminds you of all the good times you used to have, remember the painful repercussions of drug use—and how far you’ve come.

3. Going It Alone Can Lead to Addiction Relapse

By giving up your addictive habit, you walked away from your core social group. The natural result is loneliness and isolation, two contributing factors to relapse. Feeling as if you’re in this alone or that no one cares can cause you to turn to your “crutch.” You can only rely on personal willpower for some of your journey. It’s the support system in place that will help you during those times when your willpower lapses. Willpower is good as far as it goes, but it does no more to cure the disease of addiction than it does to cure cancer. Use your willpower to get you to a 12-step or other type of support group that’s right for you.

What you can do: There is strength in numbers. Commit to counseling, join a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and find those in your life to whom you will be accountable. Having a partner to help you through the recovery journey gives you someone to lean on when times get tough.

4. Unemployment Is a Risk Factor for Relapse

The leisure time that comes from being unemployed is filled with opportunities to relapse. Part of that is due to boredom, coupled with the financial stress associated with not having a current or future income source. Without a regular work schedule, you may also find yourself awake at times when your support system is not.

What you can do: Search out employmentand find a volunteer opportunity that will keep you on a regular schedule and encourage you to be accountable to others. Keep yourself busy with your favorite activities that help keep you away from the triggers for addictive behavior.

5. Recovery Is a Physical and Emotional Journey

Addiction is a physical, emotional, and spiritual disease, and recovery is a physical and emotional journey. A poor diet and lack of sleep or exercise can be major contributors to relapse. Feeling your physical best helps you maintain emotional well-being. It will give you the best chance at kicking the habit.

What you can do: Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and incorporate exercise into your daily regimen. Prayer and meditation are also a balm for a wounded spirit. Soon, you’ll be able to trade in the high of drug addiction for the natural high of living well.

The Takeaway

Relapse is not a necessary part of the addiction recovery journey—and it doesn’t have to be part of yours. With the knowledge of what to expect, and some smart planning, you can do this!

  • Put a strategy in place for dealing with negative emotions (anger, depression, guilt) to avoid emotional triggers that can lead to relapse.
  • Avoid social situations with drugs or alcohol.
  • Find a friend and a support group to help you through this journey.
  • Fill your time with meaningful work or volunteer opportunities.
  • Eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise.

You will soon be on your way to better health and a happier and more fulfilling life.

Brian McAlister’s sober date is August 2, 1990. He is now the president and CEO of the Full Recovery Wellness Center and Freedom 365 Virtual Recovery System™. He is also the best-selling author of Full Recovery: The Recovering Person’s Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Power. Brian recently created Freedom 365 to put a full year of 24/7, secure and private addiction recovery support in the palm of your hand, anywhere and on any device. His mission is to help others have access to the life-changing and lifesaving tools of recovery that he uses every day—even after 28 years of sobriety. Why? Because currently only 4 percent of people in America who need addiction recovery support get it. Find out more here.

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