Did you know that there are definite warning signs that come before a relapse into drug or alcohol abuse? In fact, a relapse happens in stages. The first stage is known as “emotional relapse”.
Addiction is a chronic and recurring disease of the brain. This means people recovering from any substance abuse disorder have to remain constantly vigilant if they want to avoid relapsing into active drinking and drug use. Creating a personal relapse prevention plan is a crucial part of any successful program of recovery.
First Things First – What Is “Emotional Relapse”?
In this earliest stage, you have not even started to think about using or drinking. Rather, you start feeling negative emotions that cause you to act in self-destructive ways. Even when you are sober and abstaining, some of the aspects of your disease can still impact your life.
Emotional relapse precedes physical relapse, when your own thoughts and behaviors begin to undermine everything you have worked for. At this point, you’re not drinking or using, but that is the direction in which you are heading.
If Emotional Relapse Isn’t Resumed Drinking and Drugging – What’s the Big Deal?
Some people think that a relapse doesn’t become a problem until it is actually happening. But there is an old saying – “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.”
For a person in recovery, that means that you must:
- Avoid the people, places, things, and emotions that can potentially trigger a relapse.
- Constantly monitor your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for any potential problems.
- Create a relapse prevention plan that helps you address any issues early, before they become major problems.
- Likewise, create a relapse response strategy that helps you get back on the right track if you stumble.
Being able to recognize signs of emotional relapse is an important skill to master, because it helps you recognize you red flags that could jeopardize your efforts at sobriety.
Another old saying purports “Relapse is a part of recovery”– but it doesn’t have to be. There are things you can do to safeguard your sobriety. Watching out for emotional relapse is an effective prevention strategy.
Warning Signs of Emotional Relapse
Some of the dangerous emotions to watch out for include:
- Anxiety – excessive fear, worry, or uncertainty about your sober new life
- Depression – overwhelming sadness; loss of appetite; no motivation
- Intolerance – poor cooperation with others, an uncompromising attitude, or rigid, inflexible opinions
- Anger – resentment or hostility that flares up whenever expectations are not met
- Defensiveness – intensely rejecting any criticism
- Mood Swings – an inability to control one’s feelings and reactions; unpredictable emotional volatility
If any of these emotional conditions are left undone with, they can be a factor in the stress factors that can lead to physical relapse.
Possible dysfunctional behaviors include:
- Social withdrawal or isolation – avoiding family and friends; a marked preference to be alone
- Refusal of any concerned efforts – denial of need; an insistence of doing everything “on your own” with no help from anyone
- Sporadic counseling/therapy/12-Step meetings attendance – Fellowship with other recovering addicts and alcoholics can be a major source of strength and inspiration, but as the saying goes, “it only works if you work it”.
- Poor eating habits – responding to stress or emotional pain with food; eating only junk food or fast food; alternately – loss of appetite
- Sleep disturbances – insomnia, wakefulness, poor sleep quality; alternately, excessive sleeping or an inability to get out of bed
What Comes after Emotional Relapse?
Emotional relapse sets the stage for mental relapse.
This is when the recovering addict/alcoholic is torn between conflicting desires:
- They don’t want to use – They are fully aware that using or drinking again is a terrible idea that could tear down what they are trying to build. Intellectually, they understand the dangers.
- They want to use – Some emotional trigger has set off uncontrollable alcohol/drug cravings, and in the face of such an overwhelming compulsion, the rational arguments for abstinence don’t seem to matter.
After emotional relapse comes physical relapse – this is when the person actively returns to substance use and a pattern of dysfunctional behaviors. It is a complete reversal of the progress made so far.
Obviously, a physical relapse is the most dangerous stage, since the person often drops out of treatment at this point. Because of the progressive nature of addiction, an untreated relapse can be fatal.
This is completely different from a slip – and impulsive and brief fall back into active substance use, followed almost immediately by a prompt return to recovery practices and abstinence. Some people referred to a physical relapse as a “slip that got out of control.”
Dealing with Emotional Triggers
“If you can be one step ahead of those triggers – meaning that you’re able to recognize when the emotions are coming on, before they’re full-blown and driving you into relapse mode – you can stay ahead in your recovery, preventing a relapse before the triggering events can lead you there.”
~Dr. Suzette Glasner-Edwards, Ph.D.
Avoiding triggers is sometimes easier said than done. For example, although you can make lifestyle changes to avoid unhealthy people, places, and situations, it can be a lot harder to avoid feeling an emotion.
But here’s the thing – it is perfectly OKAY to feel that emotion. The challenge of recovery is learning how to healthily cope with uncomfortable feelings. NEVER ignore a negative emotion, because unresolved, it can build until it threatens to overwhelm you.
On the other hand, practicing awareness of your emotions grants several benefits:
- You gain an understanding of WHY you are feeling a particular way.
- You can PROCESS your feelings better.
- You have an opportunity to LEARN from your feelings.
It is important to keep in mind that your feelings CANNOT hurt you. However, trying to numb those feelings by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs CAN.
Turning Negative Emotions into Positive Action
Powerful emotions often engender a feeling that you need to DO something in response. In the past, however, that “something” was usually some self-destructive behavior such as drinking or using drugs. Of course, that never solved the problem or alleviated the painful emotion.
During recovery, you are taught to instead use nervous energy or anxiety to do something that is beneficial to you or others. For example, you can:
- Clean your house – Your mood can be elevated by the feeling of accomplishment you experience from seeing the tangible results of your work.
- Do your laundry – Not only do you get the mood elevation, this simple non-demanding job will allow you to relax, breathe deeply, and lower your autonomic responses – heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
- Exercise – going for a run or working out activates endorphins – the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain
- Walk your dog – you can change your feelings with a change of scenery.
- Go to a 12-Step meeting – This is ALWAYS a good idea when you need a “sobriety tune-up”.
Learning from Relapse
“A slip is an error in learning… (People) who recover from habits they want to change treat slips very differently. They see themselves as having made a mistake they needn’t repeat. And RECOVERING from a slip gives them stronger confidence in their ability to resist temptation.”
~Dr. G. Allan Marlatt, the University of Washington
The goal of recovery is always to stay away from the use of alcohol or drugs, but many people in early recovery have a hard time staying completely substance-free. Approximately 70% of people relapse at least once within their first year of sobriety.
While this sounds like a lot – and it is – it is comparable to the non-adherence rates among people with other chronic illnesses:
- Up to 60% of people with diabetes do not follow their recommended diet, exercise, and medication plan.
- Up to 70% of people with hypertension are noncompliant with their diet and medication schedule.
- Up to 70% of asthmatics don’t take their medication as prescribed.
But if you have suffered a sobriety setback – whether a slip or a full-blown relapse – it doesn’t mean that your recovery has failed. It is still possible to learn from that experience and move forward.
Upon reflection, you should be able to identify exactly what triggered your return to substance use. Armed with that knowledge, you can more easily avoid that trigger in the future, until such caution becomes second nature.
Dr. Marlatt explains further by saying, “Habit change depends on increasing your awareness of just where in your life the temptations come from, and finding skillful ways to handle them.”
How to Avoid Emotional Relapse
There are 3 things to practice if you want to avoid emotional relapse:
- Self-Awareness – Maintaining an active knowledge of your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. There are several ways to practice self-awareness:
- Mindfulness meditation – A 2017 study suggests that practicing mindfulness for as little as 11 minutes a day can help reduce cravings.
- Daily reflection and affirmation
- Self-Care – Doing the things that are necessary to maintain and improve your physical, emotional, and mental health.
- Proper nutrition – Addiction takes a terrible toll on the body, robbing it of essential nutrients. Eating right gets you healthier by restoring the vitamins and minerals you may have lost. Also, hunger is easy to misinterpret as drug cravings.
- Reducing stress – A 2011 study revealed a biological link between chronic stress and addiction. Key benefit – when you are calm, you are far less likely to overreact to the problematic situation.
- Getting enough quality sleep – Insomnia is the biggest complaint among people in early recovery. Inadequate sleep can lead to irritability, depression, and confusion – each of which can trigger a relapse.
- Ask for help when you need it – The disease of addiction is too large of a problem to try to tackle alone. Asking for and receiving the help you need from supportive, positive people lets you take advantage of new perspectives and additional resources.
The Bottom Line about Emotional Relapse
Relapse is not inevitable, and it doesn’t happen all at once, with absolutely no warning. The active manifestation of the disease of addiction returns in progressive stages.
But by remaining vigilant and practicing awareness, you can learn to recognize the stages of relapse and take the appropriate action to safeguard your continued sobriety.