Understanding Relapse: Navigating the Journey of Addiction Recovery

Addiction, which encompasses any substance use disorder, is often misconstrued as a lack of willpower or a moral failing. A person who has been sober for years is may be deemed a failure after a single instance of drinking alcohol or using drugs. The truth is that any addiction, where substance use disorders and substance abuse happens, is a chronic disease akin to diabetes and cancer. Like other chronic conditions, addiction can be managed with relapse prevention strategies and support groups, and may enter remission, but is susceptible to relapse. Just as the relapse of cancer is never seen as a patient’s failure, a relapse in addiction should not be deemed a failure but rather a symptom of a chronic condition and an opportunity to learn.

Addiction is a Chronic Disease

Research has shown that addiction is a complex, chronic disease of the human brain manifested by compulsive use of harmful substances like opioids, despite negative emotions and consequences. To understand relapses, it’s important to first learn how and why a person becomes addicted to drugs.

The human brain is a 3-pound mass of tissue that controls all activity, from basic functions like breathing and eating to experiences and behaviors that make us who we are. Drugs and alcohol interfere with the normal functioning of the brain. Some drugs alter the processing of signals or mimic natural neurotransmitters in the body. Drugs produce euphoria by creating a surge of chemicals that affect the brain’s reward circuit. These bursts of feel-good chemicals are significantly more intense than those produced by enjoyable activities like listening to music or socializing, reinforcing drug-seeking behavior.

The feelings of intense pleasure reinforce these drug-seeking and drug-use behaviors. Meaning, a person is driven to experience the same feelings again and again, which are known as drug cravings. Over time, the brain learns to respond only to these high levels of chemicals. And as a result, a person who abuses drugs feels depressed, unmotivated, and lifeless without drugs and is unable to find pleasure in previously enjoyable things.

Relapse is Common

If you are already in treatment programs for addiction and have experienced a relapse, it might seem like the journey has come to a stop. But this could not be further from the truth. Addiction relapse is more common than you think. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 40 to 60% of individuals in the recovery process from substance use disorders experience at least one relapse after completing treatment, often influenced by underlying mental health issues that complicate addiction recovery. This relapse rate is no different from other chronic illnesses like diabetes which return in 30-50% of patients after treatment.

Causes of Relapse

The most common causes for why an addict would to relapse and return to drug use is usually a cue or trigger, seconded by isolating behaviors that cut them off from support and coping mechanisms. This could mean returning to a place where they once obtained drugs, seeing drug-related paraphernalia, or hanging out with people who were prior drug-use buddies. These triggers serve as reminders of the pleasurable feelings associated with drug use.

It is not a failure of the recovering addict. Brain imaging has revealed that drugs cause structural damage to the brain. The connections linking drug use and pleasurable feelings become hardwired in the brain. That’s why addicts can react very strongly to triggers associated with prior drug abuse.

Stages of Relapse: The Critical Period and The Safe Zone

Studies indicate that the emotional, mental, and physical stages of relapse are most likely during the first 90 days post-treatment, indicating the critical period for relapse prevention and self care to rewrite the brain’s neural pathways. The reason is it takes considerable time to overcome the hardwiring and structural damage caused by drug abuse. Cravings are strongest in the first few days of sobriety. For this reason, it’s important to recognize and stay clear of triggers during this critical period.

Studies have also shown that people who obtain professional help for addiction treatment are more likely to achieve remission and less likely to relapse. Being in recovery creates a safe zone where a recovering addict can learn from others. If they experience a craving, they can immediately ask for help. Over time, this creates new connections in the brain, linking cravings with seeking help in a safe and reassuring environment.

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Relapse is a Sign and an Opportunity to Learn

Despite a person’s best efforts during recovery, relapses do occur. It’s important to remember that relapse is a part of recovery and not an individual failure. Experts advise that recognizing the warning signs leading to a relapse should be taken as a signal that the person’s addiction treatment needs to be changed or adjusted. For example, someone who has been receiving care through an outpatient program may need more intensive treatment, such as transitioning to an inpatient program or a partial hospitalization program.

Recovering addicts should embrace relapse as a learning opportunity, a chance to figure out what they’re doing wrong and what needs to change. Relapse serves as an opportunity to identify signs of emotional and mental relapse, learning to manage triggers with healthy coping skills and a strong support system. It’s a Second chance to put better strategies in place to prevent a return to drug use in the future.

Recovery is a Lifelong Process

The idea that lifetime abstinence from drugs is the only successful outcome of addiction treatment is inherently flawed. A better approach is to take every day that a recovered addict lives in sobriety as a measure of success.

Another way to look at it is that recovery is a lifelong journey. There are bound to be some hurdles along the way. But as long as you keep moving in the right direction, a relapse is nothing more than a temporary setback that can be corrected.

Building a New Life: How to Respond to a Relapse?

In an ideal world, you could walk into an addiction treatment center, complete treatment, and never use drugs or alcohol again. In reality, relapse is a common occurrence among recovering addicts, and understanding the intricate balance between recovery and relapse is crucial for anyone navigating the path of addiction treatment.

The attitude that relapse is a failure can be dangerous because it can lead to feelings of shame. These feelings of shame and failure can encourage a person to return to drinking or using drugs at previous levels. In reality, a relapse does not have to escalate into a full-blown catastrophe. The important thing is to work through it with a proactive approach, so you can get back on the road to recovery.

If you are in addiction treatment, remember a relapse is not a failure, but a small misstep in the lifelong journey of recovery. Learn to recognize a relapse early on and get the help you need without secrecy or fear of judgment. Only then can you bid goodbye to drugs and alcohol forever.

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