Everyone has to deal with stress and other unpleasant emotions, but lately a lot of people have gotten more than their fair share. The coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of mental stress on individuals in recovery, which translates to increased risk of relapse. But contrary to popular belief, relapse is not something that happens all at once. Rather, an individual usually moves through the stages of relapse, starting with mild relapse symptoms and ending with complete relapse.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people recovering from drug addiction will relapse. This highlights how common this problem is, and how essential it is to understand the stages of relapse to keep yourself safe and healthy. For more alcohol and drug relapse statistics, and for key information about relapse prevention for veterans, keep reading.

What Is Relapse?

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It’s tempting to define relapsing as a sober person taking a drink, but the reality is often more complicated. Relapse, much like addiction, does not have a singular cause or step. Rather, relapse is a series of stages that starts small and ends with an individual in recovery abusing alcohol or drugs again.

Veterans are at an increased risk to move through the stages of relapse due to their higher risk for mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other invisible wounds of war. When these issues flare up, the risk of relapse increases. For military personnel, this makes understanding the stages of relapse even more important, since this information can help people  identify signs of relapse before they worsen.

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It’s important to remember that in many treatment models, relapse is part of recovery. Relapsing today does not mean that you can’t achieve long-term recovery. But relapse is often unpleasant, and it can even be dangerous due to overdose risk and other dangers of addiction. That’s why knowing the stages of relapse can help; when you know what to look out for, you can more easily protect yourself.

Now that we have a clear definition of relapse, let’s delve into the different stages of relapse that you should look out for.

1. Dismissal

Rarely do relapses come without warning. More often, an individual with a substance use disorder will feel that something is not quite right. This could look like a resurgence in mental illness symptoms, particularly for veterans who have a mental health diagnosis. It could also present as worsened behavioral health, where the individual can feel themself losing some level of control over their emotions or actions.

This may start with exposure to relapse triggers like stress, or it could come on for seemingly no reason. But the important thing to know is that the first stage of relapse begins when these feelings and concerns are ignored. If an individual does not take steps to address these feelings and get support, they will progress to the next stage of relapse.

2. Avoidance

In veterans with PTSD, avoidance behaviors typically mean anything that allows them to avoid something that reminds them of past trauma. In the second stage of relapse, however, avoidance typically means assuring oneself that relapse is impossible. For most people, this comes with shifting focus to something else.

This could look like trying to take care of other people, focusing on a hobby, or spending your energy in virtually any way that allows you to ignore the negative feelings you’re experiencing. This stage of relapse is tricky, since it feels positive to reject relapse as a possibility, but it actually worsens the issue by not addressing the underlying feelings that lead to relapse.

3. Crisis

Eventually, denying the problem stops working. But allowing it to build up can make these feelings even harder to process, which can lead to a sense of panic or catastrophe. You might start to obsess about thoughts of relapse, even as you’re not sure of what you can do to avoid it.

This stage of relapse is often accompanied with depression symptoms. These can include recurring sadness, lack of energy, and worsened personal relationships. On top of another mental health condition, these symptoms can be especially severe.

4. Loss of Control

Eventually, depression symptoms can worsen until they feel impossible to control. At this stage, you might feel yourself accepting relapse as an inevitability. You might stop attending 12-step meetings, become more distant from your support network, or just generally stop making recovery a priority.

At this stage of relapse, it’s also normal to feel like you’ve run out of choices. You may feel resentful, as if you have no choice but to relapse. It can be hard to break out of the cycle once you’ve reached this late stage of relapse, but feelings like this should be your warning that you’re on the verge of a relapse.

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5. Relapse

All of these feelings that have been building will come to a boiling point in the final stage of relapse. You might feel tired of fighting these feelings, or as if you have no way to cope with them other than drug or alcohol relapse. The relapse can be big or small, but the feeling afterward will most likely not be a pleasant one.

For most people, there is a lot of shame following a relapse. But from here, it can go one of two ways. The shame can be a motivating factor that drives someone back to treatment and addiction recovery. Or, unfortunately, the shame can make it feel like there is no path forward, which can lead to more drinking and drug abuse, thus continuing the cycle of addiction.

But a relapse does not have to mean the end of your recovery journey. People relapse every day. And while it’s not a good thing, it’s not the end of the world, either. You can choose to recommit yourself to addiction recovery and positive mental health. It may take time to earn back trust in the people around you, but you stand to gain so much by sticking with your recovery and committing to quitting drugs and alcohol.

You Can Avoid the Stages of Relapse

When you find yourself in the early stages of relapse, it’s time to get help. Whether that means attending outpatient treatment or starting from scratch and attending a residential rehab program, what matters is that you’re taking care of yourself. If you have had a relapse incident, you might even need a detox program again.

But at no point is it “too late” to refocus on your recovery. You’re never beyond help, and our veteran rehab center is dedicated to helping people just like you. If you’re ready to talk about your options, call our admissions specialists at 888-838-6692 or ask your questions online. Finding yourself in the stages of relapse is distressing, but there is always a way out!

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