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Alcohol relapse warning signs and addictions support

An alcohol relapse can happen after a period of abstinence. It is important to remember that a relapse isn’t a sign of failure, as when a person tries to change patterns of behaviour that were once so embedded and established in their everyday life, setbacks can happen.

When someone does experience an alcohol relapse, this shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for them to ‘give up’ or carry on drinking. It should be seen as a time for the person to learn from their mistakes and build upon the progress they have already made.

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.

Warning signs of possible alcohol relapse

The following behaviours 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

Supporting someone experiencing an alcohol relapse

When someone has an alcohol relapse, it is important to remember that this is something that many people experience when overcoming alcohol addiction. It is not a sign of failure, or the end of their sobriety.

If you are concerned about someone, it is important to encourage the person to seek medical advice if they are experiencing unusual or significant symptoms. You may also want to get in contact with the person’s support network for advice and guidance; this may include their family, friends, doctor or addiction support group.

When talking to the person about their possible alcohol relapse, sit down with them, calmly explain what you have seen that has concerned you and let them know how their behaviour has been affecting you. If they have had an alcohol relapse, or feel that they are at risk of experiencing one, let them know that you are here to support them. Remind the person that a setback is an opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes, and build upon the progress that they have already made.

Specialist addiction treatment at Priory Group

When a person experiences an alcohol relapse, the shame and guilt that they feel can stop them from accessing the help they need. Reaching out is so important and isn’t something a person should feel embarrassed about. In fact, being surrounding by the right support can help a person get back on track.

During Priory Addiction Treatment Programmes, we make sure that people are well-equipped to deal with the tests that life may throw at them. We encourage people to think carefully and honestly about how their abstinence may be tested when they return to their everyday life, and work together to formulate a personalised relapse prevention plan so that they have the skills and support to deal with these triggers effectively. By identifying and planning for such potential pitfalls, this can reduce the risk of a person experiencing an alcohol relapse in the future.  

Our free 12-month aftercare programme is also there to help people who have attended our Addiction Treatment Programme during their first year of recovery. Weekly meetings, talking groups and continuous assistance form part of the programme, which provide each person with support, advice and encouragement to help them sustain their recovery.  

*Those who attend an Addiction Treatment Programme at Priory Hospital Roehampton or The Manor Clinic receive access to our aftercare programme for life.

Reviewed by Claire Rimmer (BA, GradDipPsych, FDAP [NCAC]), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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