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How to Develop a Relapse Prevention Plan



Relapse is a common experience for people in recovery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of the people who get treatment for drug addiction or alcoholism relapse within 4 years. 

But there are things you can do to help prevent relapse. This guide will show you how to develop a personalized plan that works best for your individual needs and goals.


Table of Contents

Relapse is the return to drug use after trying to stop

Relapse is a common problem that affects most people who are in recovery from drug use or alcohol abuse. 

Relapse should not be seen as a failure but rather as progress, which means you have learned something about yourself and your addiction. 

You can learn from the relapse experience and apply those lessons the next time you try to abstain from drugs or alcohol.

Relapse does not mean punishment; it’s not the end of the world; it’s a temporary setback in your recovery process – nothing more than that!


Understanding the stages of relapse can help you intervene early on

It’s important to understand that relapse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If you think about it, relapse is actually a process

—one that can be broken down into stages. 

The first stage is the emotional stage, which may include feelings of sadness or anger. 

Then there’s the mental stage; if you find yourself thinking about using drugs or alcohol again, this is when you’re at risk of progressing to the next step: an actual physical relapse.

Understanding what these stages look like can help you intervene early on, before things get out of hand and become more serious than they need to be!


Emotional relapse occurs when you're feeling a lot of negative emotions but haven't started actually using drugs or drinking

It’s important to recognize this stage because it can lead to mental relapse, physical relapse, and full-blown addiction. 

If you’ve just experienced an emotional relapse and want to prevent another one from happening in the future, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Seek help from a professional therapist or counselor who can help you address any underlying issues that may be causing your depression or anxiety.
  • Reduce stress by exercising regularly and eating healthily.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation by focusing on breathing deeply for five minutes each day (try this guided meditation for beginners).


Mental relapse happens when you start thinking about using drugs or drinking again

It can be hard to tell when you’re starting to relapse mentally. You might not even realize that you are mentally relapsing until you’ve already started drinking or drugging again.

Mental relapse occurs when your thoughts turn to returning to drug use, even if you have not yet used any drugs. 

It is a sign that physical relapse may soon follow, and so it should be dealt with immediately by seeking professional help from an addiction recovery program.


Physical relapse means that you've started using again and are in the midst of doing so

This can happen for a variety of reasons, but usually it’s because your brain has started to associate certain situations with the pleasure or relief that drugs or alcohol bring. 

Maybe you needed to drink in order to cope with stress at work; maybe when you saw certain people, it made you want to get high again; maybe not having access to drugs or alcohol puts too much pressure on your brain and triggers cravings.

Whatever the reason, if you’re physically relapsing—if there’s actual evidence that shows that you’ve used

—you may be tempted to ignore this fact and continue down the same path of self-destruction as before. 

However, by recognizing what happened and building healthy coping skills now, there is hope for recovery.


Helping yourself avoid mental and emotional relapse can make it easier to spot if you're heading toward physical relapse

The good news is that understanding the stages of relapse can help you avoid mental and emotional relapse. If you’re feeling a lot of negative emotions but haven’t started using drugs or drinking yet, it’s important to ask yourself what else in your life might be contributing to your stress.

If you’re still having trouble staying sober after making an effort at self-care, or if your recovery has been going well but then suddenly seems to be unraveling, consider meeting with a therapist who specializes in addiction treatment.

You may also want to try attending 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). 

These groups provide support and accountability on top of being able to meet people who understand what it’s like dealing with addiction daily.


Relapse prevention includes a combination of strategies, people, and places that can help you stay clean or sober

While it’s easy to think of relapse prevention as a one-time plan, it’s a lifelong process. 

Having a relapse prevention plan is not just about having a list of strategies, people, and places that can help you stay clean or sober. 

It’s also about working on yourself—your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—and being willing to change those things that might lead to drug abuse in the future.

Relapse prevention is not an event: it’s an ongoing process that takes time and practice. You’ll have setbacks along the way; this is normal! 

The key is learning from them so they don’t become full-blown relapses.

An effective relapse prevention plan will include strategies such as:

  • Developing coping skills through therapy or 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous;
  • Identifying triggers (such as being stressed out) before they become overwhelming;
  • Doing things that help you feel good about yourself instead of turning to drugs;
  • Connecting with other people who share your goals for recovery.


Paid treatment programs, 12-step groups, and other types of support are all part of a successful prevention plan

While these options may be more expensive than your typical self-help program, they can be worth it if they help you avoid relapse and maintain sobriety.

If you’re on a budget, there are still plenty of ways to avoid relapse—and none of them involve spending money!


A personal set of coping skills is important for avoiding relapse, too

Coping skills include healthy eating and exercise, meditation, yoga, mindfulness and other relaxation techniques. 

These types of activities can help you manage negative emotions that lead to substance abuse. They can also give you the motivation to stay on track with recovery at all times!


Your motivation level and your ability to engage in treatment are both related to the likelihood of success with recovery

While motivation and ability are both important, it is your motivation level that will be the key factor in determining your success in recovery. 

Your ability to engage in treatment is also important, but it’s not quite as crucial as your psychological state of mind.

Your ability to engage with treatment may have a direct relationship with how much you enjoy being sober and what type of support system you have available for recovery efforts. 

If you’re feeling tired or bored because life is so dull without alcohol or drugs, then finding ways to reduce the boredom and make yourself more engaged in activities should be on top of your list.

It’s also possible that engaging with treatment is related directly to how much money it costs

—especially if insurance isn’t covering long-term residential rehab programs like they used to do years ago

—and whether or not there are other barriers preventing individuals from getting help when they need it most urgently (such as having no transportation).


Relapse is common but preventable

People who have been sober for decades can experience relapse. It’s normal to get anxious or overwhelmed in certain situations, especially if you’ve been in recovery for a while and are used to living with no drugs or alcohol. 

Relapses can happen at any time, even after years of sobriety.

The good news? Relapse doesn’t mean you’re out of recovery or doomed forevermore; it just means that you need to return to your plan and adjust accordingly. 

Recovery is a process and relapse is a part of that process—even for those who’ve been sober for years! 

If anything, this should motivate you further because it shows how close we all are—and how far we’ve come

—in our path toward lasting sobriety

If you have a relapse prevention plan, it will help you feel more confident in your ability to stay sober or clean.

It’s also important to remember that recovery is a process and not necessarily an endpoint. Some people experience only one relapse before moving into long-term sobriety, while others may need multiple attempts before achieving recovery. 

Whatever the case may be for you, just keep working at it because every day without drugs or alcohol is worth celebrating!


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