4 Tips for Getting Back on Track after a Relapse

Suffering from an addiction can be devastating.  Even once in recovery, the constant fear of relapse can make the addiction seem all the more terrifying -- to both the substance abuser and their loved ones.



The experience of relapse is common among individuals in recovery from addiction. It happens to those who have been sober for only a few days, as well as to people who have been in recovery for years, maybe even decades.

Is relapse inevitable? No, not always, but it seems more common than not.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates relapse rates to be between 40-60%. It surprises many people to hear that this percentage range is similar to the rates of relapse for other chronic illnesses, like diabetes, asthma, or high blood pressure!

The good news is that even if there has been a relapse (often referred to as a “slip” or “lapse” early on), the addict can choose to get back on the track of recovery at any point in time.  

Some of what I have learned about the recovery process comes from keeping up-to-date on scientific research. But invaluable knowledge also comes from my professional experience, and seeing how real people have successfully overcome their addictive behaviors.

Below are four tried-and-true ways of getting back on the path to recovery:

1.  Tell someone.

The simple act of confiding in a person who’s supportive of you is worth its weight in gold. It’s amazing what can happen, once we speak the truth out loud. First of all, taking this single step can really lighten the load. Once we have shared about our substance use with someone else, we have also shared the burden, and no longer have to shoulder that weight on our own.

Opening up to someone we trust can provide us with non-judgmental support, encouragement, or even advice on what to do or where to go.  This confidant might be able to help with the logistics that seem overwhelming, such as helping you get to a meeting, or calling your therapist to schedule an emergency appointment.

We might even have the benefit of the other person’s experience, perhaps sharing what helped them during similar circumstances, or even a time they relapsed.

2.  Make a game plan.

Once you have chosen to get back on track with recovery, and have told someone else what is going on, you should come up with a game plan. This might include getting the substances out of the house, scheduling an appointment with your therapist, finding a local 12-step meeting, or coming up with a schedule to stay busy.

Many people who struggle with alcohol or drug abuse find that free time and boredom can be huge triggers for them. This is the number one reason to create a schedule – planning down to the very minute where you are going to be, who you will be with, and what you will be doing to minimize your free time. It’s like the saying: “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”

3.  Don’t beat yourself up.

Okay, so you’ve relapsed.  You are most likely going to start beating yourself up about it: “I can’t believe I let this happen…I was doing so well….I just threw it all down the drain.” The danger in this line of thinking is that it has great potential to pull you even further back into your addiction, instead of getting you back on the road to recovery. 

Negative thinking can also increase feelings of guilt and shame, which are often emotional triggers for relapse, or remaining in the relapse. I’m not saying that you can’t take some time to process what has happened. It’s natural and common to feel bad about it. Lots of people feel guilt, shame, or remorse.

What I am saying is not to let those thoughts and feelings dictate what happens next. Learn from what happened, and move forward.

4.  Do a relapse analysis.

Relapse is not an event, but a process. Odds are, the relapse episode did not begin when you took the drug or drink. Often, things happen before you use that indicate the beginning of the relapse.

Once you identify your behavior patterns, this can help you recognize and interrupt the relapse next time around.  Usually the best way to do the analysis is by looking for possible triggers that occurred in the days/weeks leading up to the relapse. 

Take note of events that may have happened at work, in your personal life, in treatment, differences in your behavior patterns, any relapse thoughts you can identify, or any changes in health status. Also be sure to look at your feelings associated with any events that occurred, and how that could have increased your chances of relapse.

Just because a relapse has happened doesn’t mean you can’t get back on track. Using these four tips can be extremely helpful in moving forward with your recovery.