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Learn how to recognize the signs of relapse, and what you can do to help someone at risk.

If you’re recovering from addiction, or helping someone in recovery, understanding the triggers, risks and signs of relapse can help you successfully navigate, or even prevent, a relapse.

“It’s not uncommon for people to experience relapse at least once during their recovery,” says Michele Davis, director of counseling at Geisinger Marworth. “Understanding the triggers of a relapse of can help you prevent one.”

What is relapse?

When someone who’s overcome an addiction returns to using a drug or drinking alcohol — that’s a relapse.

Someone in recovery may relapse just once, or several times. Of course, losing ground on the path to recovery is difficult and frustrating. But relapse is also risky because it can lead to accidental overdose. When you’re taking a drug, you build up tolerance to it. During recovery, your body loses that tolerance. If you take the same amount of the drug as before, you might have an extreme, unexpected — even fatal — reaction.

“That’s why it’s so important to have a plan in place and know the signs of a relapse,” says Ms. Davis.

What are the warning signs of relapse?

Preventing a relapse starts with knowing the warning signs.

“A common warning sign is when someone begins to look back on their days of substance misuse in a positive light,” says Ms. Davis.

Romanticizing drug or alcohol use and only remembering perceived “positives” of misuse can lead someone to believe they can use again, casually, without falling back into a pattern of addiction.

Sudden behavior changes are another warning sign. Someone who’s experiencing relapse might isolate themselves or give up favorite activities and hobbies they developed during recovery.

What can trigger a relapse?

Triggers of relapse can include stress, celebrations or being in the presence of the substance you were addicted to.


Stress — or the attempt to cope with it — is the main cause of relapse.

“The best way to prepare for this trigger is to recognize what your stressors are,” says Ms. Davis. “If a certain person, situation or activity causes you stress, try to avoid it.”

In fact, any negative emotion can trigger a relapse. Instead of seeking temporary relief in a harmful substance, consider healthier ways to cope with stress and negative emotions, like practicing mindfulness, meditating or exercising.


Not all relapse triggers are negative. Taking part in celebrations can also trigger a craving and relapse. “You might feel like you can handle one drink, for example, during these times, but often things get out of control,” says Ms. Davis.

One way to protect yourself from relapsing at a celebration — without avoiding them entirely — is to designate a trusted friend to intervene if you feel any temptation.

“Having someone you trust pull you aside and tell you that what you’re about to do can lead to harmful consequences will help you balance life in recovery with everyday celebrations,” says Ms. Davis.

Know when to reach out for help

Reaching out to a friend, family member, therapist or counselor can help you avoid a relapse. Don’t be afraid to let people know you’re having concerns or feeling tempted.

And, if you have relapsed, reaching out to an addiction treatment center can help you get back on track and regain your sobriety.

Addiction treatment at Geisinger Marworth Treatment Center

If you, a friend or family member are dealing with substance abuse, addiction or relapse, Geisinger Marworth can help. With inpatient and outpatient programs and numerous counseling resources available, we’ll help you or your loved one find the right treatment path to a healthier life without alcohol or drugs.

Next steps:

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Recognize the warning signs of a relapse.

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