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What is Relapse, and What is it Not?



If you’re in recovery for addiction or another disorder, you know that relapse is a part of the process. 

You may even have come to believe that people don’t actually recover from addictions

—that relapse is inevitable and that it’s best to just accept failure as part of the story of your life. 

That would be a mistake. In fact, many researchers and experts in addiction agree that relapse is not only common but also preventable and treatable; 

it’s simply an important part of making progress toward recovery goals. 

The goal isn’t perfection—it’s progress toward health and wellness. 

So, let’s look at what relapse really means so we can understand what might happen when we experience setbacks along our journey toward better health and happiness!


Table of Contents

1. Relapse is an opportunity to learn

Relapse is a natural part of recovery. It’s like picking an apple from the tree or making a pie from scratch

—you have to go through the process to get to the result. 

When someone relapses, it’s not because they’re weak or stupid; it’s because they are human and have been struggling for years with an illness that has caused them great pain and shame.

The good news is that relapse can be a powerful learning experience if you approach it with an open mind. 

There are many things you’ll learn during a relapse:

  • You’ll learn how your body reacts when faced with stressors related to your addiction (or anything else).
  • You’ll learn what works and doesn’t work in terms of coping mechanisms (and why).
  • You’ll learn what triggers your addictive behaviors, so that next time around you know better than to walk into certain situations unprepared (and maybe even avoid them altogether).
  • You may even be able to identify some patterns among those who are most likely to trigger your addictive behaviors; this knowledge might help others avoid similar circumstances with their loved ones who struggle with addiction!


2. Relapse is not a moral failure

Relapse is a common part of recovery. If you want to quit heroin, for example, and you fail to do so on your first attempt

—or even if your first attempt does not work out—it does not mean that you are weak or bad, or hopeless. 

It simply means that you were unable to achieve sobriety at this particular moment in time.

Relapse is not a moral failure; it is a medical condition that can be treated with therapy and/or medication. 

When someone relapses, it does not mean that they have failed at being sober; rather, relapse can be seen as an indication that the person needs additional help with their recovery process at this time (such as receiving counseling).


3. Relapse is a process

The first thing to understand is that relapse is not an event. It’s not a single misstep, nor is it a straight line of events leading inevitably to that one final slip that causes you to spiral out of control and back into addiction. 

Instead, relapse is an ongoing process—a series of steps that can stop at any point before they lead you down a path toward full-blown relapse.

It’s also important to know that there are many factors involved in the journey from sobriety (or recovery) to relapse. These include:

  • Biological factors like genetics and age
  • Environmental influences such as stress levels or living situations
  • Personal decisions about where you spend time and whom you choose as friends.


4. Relapse is not a death sentence

Relapse is not an event. It’s a process. Relapse doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen because of one thing in particular. 

It happens when a person becomes overwhelmed by their old habits, or when their new habits are threatened by old ones, or because they’re bored with recovery and want to feel like things are back to normal again

—or any combination of these things that you can imagine!

Relapse is not a death sentence. A relapse does not mean that everything you worked for has been in vain and that your life will never be what it should be from now on. 

Relapses only make us stronger if we use them as learning experiences; they give us more information about what the problem was so that we can fix it next time around!

Relapse isn’t the end of your story either—it’s just another chapter! 

Each time something goes wrong during this process of becoming who we want to be, we learn more about ourselves along the way toward finding out who “we” truly are at our core (and why). 

This discovery makes all those bad days worth it, but don’t forget: Just because there’s no such thing as perfection doesn’t mean there aren’t still good days ahead.


5. Relapse is inevitable

Relapse is the most common part of recovery. It can be an embarrassing, scary, or even heartbreaking experience. 

But it is not a failure: relapse is simply a normal part of the recovery process. 

It doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong or that your treatment didn’t work; 

it just means that now it’s time to try something else to continue moving forward on your path toward getting better.

Our beliefs about ourselves and our lives determine how we respond when things don’t go as planned; these beliefs are called “expectations.” 

If we expect to fail at everything we do (a belief often held by people with poor self-worth), then any failure will seem catastrophic and lead us down a path toward self-destructive behavior such as drug use. 

In contrast, if we have positive expectations about ourselves (e.g., “I’m smart enough”), then even when things don’t go well at first (such as running into problems in school), they won’t lead us down an unhealthy path because they aren’t perceived as insurmountable challenges threatening our sense of worthiness or competence over time

—and thus won’t trigger unhealthy behaviors like drug use either!


6. Relapse is not the end of your story

A relapse isn’t the end of your story. It’s part of the process, and it’s something that will happen to you again and again if you’re working toward recovery. 

Relapse is inevitable; there is no such thing as a final relapse. 

The important thing is not whether or not you’ve relapsed in the past, but how you choose to move forward from here. 

If you’re truly committed to getting better, then it’s likely that this will only be one more roadblock on your journey toward recovery. 

You can learn from what happened and use those experiences to make improvements in your life moving forward

—and there’s nothing wrong with taking comfort in knowing that relapse happens to everyone at some point or another!

It’s important for people who are trying to recover from an eating disorder and/or body image concerns (whether they have had an ED before or not) not only because these individuals may have experienced repeated setbacks even before their current symptoms but also because they tend to experience increased distress when faced with failure due their high standards for self-control (Radaelli et al., 2016).


7. Relapse doesn’t have a clear start or end point

Relapse is not a single event, but rather a process. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when relapse happens because it occurs over time and may include more than one behavior. 

A person who relapses will often take on new negative behaviors that they haven’t done since their recovery, or revert to old negative behaviors that they used to do in the past.

In other words: if you ever go back to using drugs or alcohol again after getting sober, even if only once (or even just thinking about using them), then you have relapsed! 

This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed forever—it means that there’s room for improvement and changes need to be made so that your next attempt at staying sober will succeed.


8. Relapse is not a reason to give up on yourself

The most important thing to understand about relapse is that it doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you’re weak. It’s a normal part of the recovery process, and there’s nothing wrong with it. 

If someone hasn’t relapsed at some point during their recovery journey, they may need help making sure they aren’t missing any challenges they should be facing to get better.

You also shouldn’t let yourself feel like a failure because you’ve relapsed—it doesn’t make sense! 

How can something that happened before be a bad thing? (The answer: It isn’t.) 

If someone asks me how my day went today and I tell them “I had a relapse,” I’m not telling them I did poorly

—I’m telling them I had an experience that reminded me of how challenging it can be for me sometimes and what tools I use when facing those challenges.

Another way to think about this is by putting yourself into perspective: You’re not alone; everyone struggles sometimes; everyone stumbles; everyone falls; everyone has setbacks; everyone falls off the wagon occasionally. 

There are no exceptions!


Recovery may involve some setbacks, but you can get back on track and keep going

It is common for people to think of relapse as a failure, but it is not. Relapse can be an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made to improve your recovery process. 

It is also not a sign that you are weak or bad or worthless, doomed to fail in your recovery process. 

Relapse happens because of emotional stressors and/or environmental triggers that lead you back into old habits that were once coping mechanisms for dealing with those stressors and triggers. 

There may be some setbacks along the way, but these should not be seen as failures; rather, they are opportunities for learning how to avoid making similar mistakes in the future so that you can keep moving forward on your path toward wellness!



We hope the information in this article will help you to understand what relapse is, and why it’s so important that we don’t stigmatize it or punish people who experience it. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are resources available to help.


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