Addiction relapse: signs, prevention and treatment

Book a free addiction assessment at your nearest hospital.

Call Us
Tap on a number to call
Free addiction assessment

Page clinically reviewed by Dr William Shanahan, Medical Director and Clinical Director of Addictions (BAO, BCh, DCH, D'OBS, FRCPsych, MB), Priory Hospital Roehampton, in March 2024.

The path to recovery from an addiction is full of challenges. To try and cope with some of these challenges, you might be tempted to start using alcohol or drugs again, or be driven back to your addictive behaviours, even after you have achieved and maintained abstinence. This is known as relapse. When you have struggled with addiction, you will need to continue working towards ongoing abstinence and recovery throughout the course of your life, and therefore it is hugely important to gain an understanding of the risks associated with relapse, especially in the early days of recovery.

From the moment that you acknowledge that you have a problem with drugs, alcohol or another behavioural addiction and decide to seek treatment, it will be important to begin to consider how your abstinence may become compromised after you complete treatment and return to your everyday life. This is by no means an admission of defeat, but rather an opportunity to honestly appraise your lifestyle and begin formulating a plan for life after treatment.

This article delves into addiction relapses, from the signs someone might have relapsed to what you should do next if you do relapse.

Relapse warning signs

There are some common signs an alcoholic is drinking again, or that someone is going through a chronic relapse. Whilst everyone can experience relapse differently, the following alcohol relapse symptoms could suggest that a person is at risk of an alcohol relapse, or may have already relapsed:

Removing or distancing themselves - they may start to express a different attitude towards their recovery, believing that they no longer need the support of meetings or therapy sessions. They may start running late to these appointments, or not attend at all

Appearing more stressed - a person may start appearing to be more stressed, and stop relying on coping strategies they previously used to manage their stress levels. They may also deny that they are stressed, as they attempt to dismiss rather than manage their feelings

Changing their routine - a person in recovery is likely to have a well-established and healthy routine. Someone at risk of an alcohol relapse may start to step away or abandon this routine. For example, they may skip meals, disregard their sleep routine or ignore their personal hygiene

Experiencing a loss of control - a person may start to make irrational or unhealthy choices as a way to alter their mood, indulging in activities such as shopping excessively or spending too much time on social media

Return to social drinking – a person may start to engage in social drinking as they believe that they can stay in control of it, or deny that they have a problem with alcohol

Feeling guilty – a person who has experienced an alcohol relapse may feel guilty about returning to their past behaviour. This guilt can stop a person from reaching out for help and support when they need it, which can further perpetuate the problem

Our free addiction assessment

We offer an addiction assessment for you to discuss your challenges with one of our team, supporting you to start your recovery. Speak to us today:

  • In confidence
  • For free
  • With an expert

We know that taking the first step can be difficult, but we’re here to support - with no pressure or judgement.

Common causes of alcohol relapse

A person’s journey through addiction and recovery will be unique, and influenced by their history, biology and environment. Similarly, an alcohol relapse will be dependent on a person’s own set of circumstances.

There are a number of common factors that can increase the risk of an alcohol relapse. These include the following:

  • Exposure to alcohol, including the sight and smell of it
  • Exposure to alcohol-related cues, whether internal or external
  • Exposure to environments and scenarios associated with alcohol
  • Stress

Many alcohol relapses are associated with an exposure to high-risk situation, which results in a person experiencing frustration, anger, social pressure or social temptation. There may be problems at work, ongoing emotional issues, relationship challenges and financial difficulties, which can cause an individual to want to reach for a drink again.

Perspectives: Staying sober (or cutting down) over winter

Join our expert panel on Perspectives, a series from Priory that delves into the biggest issues in mental health and addictions. In this episode, we discus staying sober or cutting down over winter - including how to deal with relapses.

What is constant relapse?

Constant relapse, also known as chronic relapse, is when a person has tried to put a stop to their active addiction numerous times but has continued to return to their addictive substance or behaviour. If someone you care about is a 'chronic relapser', we understand that this can be incredibly painful to live with.

Chronic relapse is not a sign of failure

It is important to note that chronic relapse is not a sign that recovery isn’t possible. This is never the case. With the right support and treatment, recovery is achievable for everyone.

Chronic relapse can happen for many reasons, such as:

  • Being in an environment where the object of their addiction is present
  • Experiencing and succumbing to a trigger such as a place, a person or an emotion
  • Being ill equipped to deal with triggers, urges and cravings
  • Having underlying mental health conditions that haven’t been effectively treated
  • Having underlying thoughts and emotions that haven’t been properly addressed
  • Not accessing or not having access to an adequate level of support

When a person relapses, they will often feel guilty and ashamed about what they have done. These emotions can then cause them to sink even further into their addiction, and also result in them denying or trying to hide their relapse from the people that they are close to.

Relapse prevention

Following treatment and recovery, everyone can expect to face cravings from time-to-time. It is not uncommon for individuals in addiction recovery to experience a form of relapse at some point – in fact the majority of people will, especially in the first few months after recovery. What matters is how you recover from your relapse and get back to sobriety.

Relapse is a very real concern for each individual in addiction recovery, and therefore, it is important to plan ahead and take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of you experiencing an addiction relapse. By taking the time to identify your own personal triggers, you will be better prepared to avoid any negative influences that may have an adverse effect on your abstinence, and potentially lead to you relapsing.

  • Be mindful of people who may not support your new, healthy choices. Whilst your abstinence and sobriety is ultimately your responsibility, if it is easier to avoid drinking, using drugs or engaging in unhealthy behaviours by steering clear of anyone who might be a trigger
  • Stress can be a major cause of addiction relapse, so be sure to consistently monitor your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and take steps to address any negative thoughts or emotions that may lead to you relapsing
  • Ensure that you engage with the support you have around you – be it friends or family, therapy or peer support groups within your community
  • If a relapse should occur, be kind to yourself and remember that it does not necessarily signal an end to the sobriety and abstinence that you have worked so hard to achieve

Relapse prevention planning is a priority at Priory from the moment that you enter treatment for addiction. By developing an understanding of the personal triggers that may compromise your abstinence, you will be much better prepared to accurately assess negative situations, and be better equipped to prevent addiction relapse.

By having a robust plan in place for how you will respond to a relapse, you will stand a much greater chance of overcoming this setback, rather than viewing it as a defeat.

Relapse treatment centres

At Priory, we have a nationwide network of relapse treatment centres that can help you get back on track. Our expert teams will help you overcome your addiction and support you to make time for self-reflection, and help put in place a relapse prevention plan.

Private medical insurance

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers. All of the services that we offer at Priory can be funded through private medical insurance. This includes:

  • Mental health treatment
  • Addiction treatment
  • Eating disorder treatment

All clients will have access to our highly skilled and accredited clinicians, many of whom are published experts in their fields of treatment. Whatever your requirements, we are committed to working with you to get your life back on track.

Registered and approved provider

We are a registered and approved provider for all of the UK's leading private medical insurers.

Addiction treatment near me

We have addiction treatment centres located throughout the country, ensuring that you can access the support you need in a location that's convenient for you. To find your nearest addiction treatment centre, please use the search form below.

Contact us to make an enquiry or for more information

Call Us
Tap on a number to call