Drug relapses are one of the biggest obstacles a recovering addict must overcome. Many define relapse as the choice to return to using a drug that a user has been addicted to and since quit using.
There are a lot of things that can cause someone to relapse. Among these, one of the most significant reasons behind a relapse is stress.
Stress is a natural part of life. Everyone has to deal with it at some point. There’s a number of factors that can cause stress:
- Life situations can cause stress. Stressful situations can include
○ A dysfunctional marriage or relationship, in which frequent arguments or domestic issues cause stress
○ Being stuck working at a job with an unfair employer, or being made to do work you don’t like
○ Having trouble finding stable housing
○ Any situation that is unfamiliar, violent, or high-pressure
- Poor nutrition can cause stress. Not getting the proper nutrients can cause your body to release hormones that cause stress. Improper nutrition can also prevent your body from producing other hormones that regulate stress.
- Drug use can cause stress. Prescribed medications can cause anxiety as a side effect. The use of illicit drugs can cause lots of side effects, which can include stress and anxiety. Use of illegal drugs is known to cause addiction, but even the excessive use of prescription drugs can cause problems that require treatment. This causes even more stress for the user.
Of these common stressors, drug use has a very special tie to stress. The relationship is like a double-edged sword. Not only can drugs cause stress, but stressful times can make people to turn to drugs for relief.
The Link Between Drug Relapses, Addiction And Stress
Many people first decide to use drugs because they’re stressed out.
A lot of addicts reveal during recovery that they began using drugs in high school. High school students are at an age that is considered extremely stressful.
Teenagers are struggling with finding their identity, dealing with peer pressure, and trying to make ends meet in school and with family relationships. Oftentimes, people are first introduced to the working world during adolescence. All these stressors can amount to a feeling which some teens find unbearable. This can cause them to turn to drugs.
Drugs may initially relieve stress, but this relief is often short-lived. With repeated drug use, users begin to develop tolerance: they require more of the drug to feel the same effects. With tolerance comes addiction – a state in which the drug user feels extremely uncomfortable without being able to use their drugs. When someone is addicted to drugs, they require them to function at a regular level.
So, while drugs might be used to relieve stress initially, with time, they will cause more stress than they ever helped to eliminate.
To make the problem worse, if you use drugs to relieve stress, your mind creates a long-lasting attachment to drugs as a form of self-medication. For the rest of their lives, a drug user will always remember the relief that they first felt when they took drugs to eliminate stress. This link is unhealthy and creates a high chance of relapses.
What Causes Relapse & Why Does Stress Affect Relapses?
Terence Gorski, in his book, Developing A Relapse Prevention Plan, first identified three stages of relapse. These were based on the foundations of the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous support groups. His work in relapse prevention has helped many rehab centers create effective plans for recovering users.
- Emotional relapse is the stage in which you may not consciously be aware that you’re considering relapsing. Instead, your emotions and actions indicate that you might be at risk for having a relapse. People in the stage of emotional relapse may display anxiety, irritation, mood swings, or depression.
- Mental relapse is the second stage. In this stage, the addict will be consciously thinking about relapsing. Part of them wants to use, but the other part of them knows it’s a bad decision and they should refrain from doing so.
- Physical relapse is the actual process of using drugs again. Without proper prevention techniques, it doesn’t take long for a mental relapse to develop into a physical relapse.
Recovering addicts should consider high-stress situations to be a precursor to an emotional relapse. Some drug users subconsciously put themselves into stressful situations to justify the urge to relapse. These sorts of situations might require a dual diagnosis, in which addiction is assessed along with another underlying mental disorder.
In many cases, a relapse occurs when someone recovering from a drug problem feels that they can’t cope with the stress in their lives. If someone first began using drugs to combat stress, why wouldn’t the first solution to come to mind during stressful situations be using drugs? If they have proven effective in the past, why would they not again?
The relation between stress and relapse goes much deeper than this. Studies have shown that stress during early childhood can lead to addiction. The development of a child’s brain is affected by stress in a way that makes it more responsive to using drugs as self-medication.
This makes the child much more vulnerable to develop an addiction to using drugs. It also creates a much stronger relationship with drugs, since the drugs will relieve stress in a way that the user has never experienced before.
People with a history of pain and stress might find more relief from self-medicating than those who don’t have mental disorders.
Illegal, unregulated drug use is a dangerous type of self-medication. It can be very effective in the short-term, but since it’s almost impossible to regulate, it can spiral out of control.
One study observes the effects of stress on relapse, in people who first turned to drugs during stressful times. When a stressful situation comes alongside a reminder of past drug use, the urge to relapse can be much greater. These reminders can include:
- Contact with someone who an individual once used drugs with.
- Seeing drugs on television or hearing about them on the radio or online.
- Being in a place where an individual used drugs often.
When faced with serious stress, the threat of addiction and withdrawal will be blanketed by the appeal of a quick-fix for their difficult situation. This is one of the things that rehab centers try to teach recovering addicts to avoid.
Stress Reduction Strategies For Preventing Relapses
The connection between stress relief and drug use means that a recovering addict needs to develop stress-reduction techniques. This can often be a part of relapse-prevention therapy and is often included in various rehab programs. Stress-reduction techniques can include:
- Meditation. Meditation has been clinically studied for reducing stress and anxiety.
○ There are lots of different types of meditation
○ The simplest type involves simply following your breathing.
○ Sit up straight, then try to relax all the muscles in your body. Take deep, controlled breaths and put all of your attention in breathing deeply and slowly. The goal is to focus so much on your breathing that you lose awareness of unnecessary sensory and mental input.
- Make sure you maintain your friendships and personal relationships. Reach out to your friends and family. Make sure that everyone knows why you’re stressed. Having someone to talk to can take a lot of stress off your back.
- Laugh! Finding a group of people that make you laugh can be a great way of healing yourself. Laughter has even been studied as an efficient anxiety reducer.
- Make sure you move frequently. Moving your body is a simple way to distract yourself from mental stressors.
WebMD has a good list of stress-reduction techniques. Before using these techniques, you should make sure you have a clear understanding of why you’re stressed.
The following techniques can be effective without understanding the mechanisms behind your stress, but the relief will probably be temporary. Being aware of what stresses you out and, more importantly, why these things stress you out, is more important than learning how to bandage the problem.
- It can be easy to figure out what causes you stress in certain situations. External stressors, like work-related issues or problems with your marriage, can be very apparent.
- A lot of these situations happen to people again and again, which demonstrates a pattern of chronic stress. It is easy to overlook the underlying feelings and motives that lead a person towards chronic stress.
- For example, if you’re repeatedly stressed because of work, it’s easy to blame that on the job. Maybe it’s your procrastination or dissatisfaction with the work that leads you to stressful situations.
- There are several red flags that can let you know you’re not ready to get over your stress.
○ Do you dismiss stress as a temporary problem? If you experience stressful situations again and again, the problem’s not really temporary.
○ Have you accepted stress to be a regular part of your life? It shouldn’t be! Accepting stress as a part of your life is the first step towards not being able to fix it.
○ Do you have trouble accepting responsibility for your stress? If you constantly blame other people or situations for your stress, then you won’t be able to fix it.
Relapse Prevention Strategies
Reducing stress isn’t the only way to prevent a relapse. There are a lot of techniques you can use to fight off the need to do drugs! Many of these are used in traditional rehab programs.
- The recovering addict must first be stable and in control of their lives to prevent a relapse. Before starting a prevention plan, the user must be clean and sober for some time. This helps remind them of the things they felt as a sober individual. They might need to undergo additional therapy to ensure they can control their feelings and actions while sober.
- A proper assessment must be done for the recovering addict. Each addict, and each relapse, is different. There is no ground rule that guarantees that someone won’t relapse. Assessments can be done at rehab facilities by trained professionals.
○ This assessment should look at the user’s past and identify the things that caused them to use drugs in the first place.
○ It should look at their family and social lives and identify potential triggers.
○ For those who have attempted recovery several times, the history of their relapses should be observed. This helps them see what caused their relapses in the past and can help them make sure they won’t happen again.
- They must be educated and understand the process of relapse, meaning they should learn about the different stages of relapse mentioned earlier.
- One of the most crucial parts of stopping a relapse in its tracks is to identify warning signs. These can include different feelings, like anxiety, stress, or depression. They can include different actions, like hanging out with people that the recovering addict has avoided since they stopped using.
Seeking Help To Overcome Stress And The Urge To Relapse
Self-medicating can be a huge obstacle towards actually healing your problems. Self-medicating is also known to make the problems you’re trying to fix get worse. The best way to be sure that you won’t relapse is to seek help with your problems.
If you were able to stop using drugs without going to a traditional rehab program, you should still consider getting therapy. Many people avoid getting therapy because they feel it labels them or decreases their value as a person.
This isn’t true. Reaching out to learn relapse prevention techniques will make you a stronger person. This will prevent you from falling into the same patterns of destructive behavior that led you into addiction in the first place.
Finding the right rehab resources could be the first step towards a permanent recovery from drugs and alcohol. It’s important that you check out the options available and work towards a healthy recovery.