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The Three Stages of Relapse: Identifying, Addressing, & Overcoming Triggers

by Demarco Moore

April 27, 2023
A woman in addiction recovery experiences the 3 stages of relapse

When we talk about overcoming addiction, recovery and relapse often go hand in hand. That’s because relapsing during addiction recovery is a common setback that can happen at any point. While some people might view this setback as a sign of failure, relapsing is actually a natural part of the recovery process. 

Relapse usually happens in three stages, as described by Terence T. Gorski and Merlene Miller in their book “The Phases And Warning Signs of Relapse.” 

The three stages include:

  • Emotional relapse
  • Mental relapse
  • Physical relapse

Understanding each one can help you manage your triggers and prevent relapse from happening again. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore each stage and discuss the connection between recovery and relapse.  Whether you’re starting your journey or have been in recovery for a while, this information can take proactive steps to prevent relapse and achieve long-term success.

What Are The Three Stages Of Relapse in Order?

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse usually comes before physical and mental relapse. During this stage, people may experience various emotions that can lead to a relapse, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness

In this stage, you might feel a lot of emotions, like being sad, angry, or lonely. These feelings can be hard to handle, but they don’t mean you want to start using drugs or alcohol again. The key is to notice these feelings and find healthy ways to deal with them, like talking to a friend, counselor, or family member.

Recognizing these emotions and addressing them early on can help prevent a full-blown relapse.

Mental Relapse

In the stage of mental relapse, people may start to entertain thoughts of using substances again. This internal struggle can manifest in several ways, including:

  • Romanticizing past substance use
  • Thinking about places and people associated with addiction
  • Planning to relapse

In the mental relapse stage, people usually start thinking about using drugs or alcohol again. You might remember the “good times” you had while using, or you might start hanging out with friends who still use. It’s important to recognize these thoughts and find ways to stay focused on your recovery.

It’s crucial to address these thoughts and develop relapse prevention strategies to avoid slipping further into relapse.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse occurs when someone returns to substance use behaviors after a brief period in recovery. This stage can be devastating for the person and their loved ones, as it can lead to feelings of failure and shame. However, it’s important to remember that recovery is a lifelong process, and relapse can be a learning opportunity to strengthen one’s commitment to overcoming addiction.

Warning Signs of Relapse: How to Recognize Them Before It’s Too Late

We understand that relapse is a process that can occur in three stages, as Gorski and Miller explain. One way to prevent relapse is to recognize warning signs that may show that a person is in danger of relapsing. Gorski and Miller identified 37 warning signs to look out for that can be divided into three categories: 

  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Behavioral

Let’s explore a few warning signs within each category.

Emotional Warning Signs

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation

Mental Warning Signs

  • Thoughts of using drugs or alcohol
  • Rationalizing drug use
  • Minimizing the consequences of past drug use
  • Cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Lying

Behavioral Warning Signs

  • Spending time with old friends who use drugs or alcohol
  • Going to places where drugs or alcohol are used
  • Neglecting self-care
  • Avoiding support groups or therapy
  • Not attending 12-step meetings

Recognizing these warning signs can help prevent relapse. If you or someone you know is experiencing these warning signs, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional, support group or licensed therapist.

Prevent Relapse and Take Control of Your Recovery Today

Understanding the three stages of relapse is vital for maintaining long-lasting recovery. Emotional, mental and physical relapses can happen to anyone. However, by identifying the warning signs, you can take proactive steps to address triggering thoughts, behaviors and situations that could lead to a full-blown relapse.

Remember to seek help from a doctor or addiction treatment provider if you experience negative health symptoms. Additionally, surround yourself with plenty of support, even if you’ve already been through inpatient rehab. Consider reaching out to Landmark Recovery to learn more about personalized treatment options that can help you gain the confidence to choose recovery over addiction.

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About the Author

Demarco Moore

Demarco Moore

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Demarco Moore currently writes blogs about drug addiction treatment and recovery to help save lives at treatment provider Landmark Recovery. Before that, he cut his teeth as a sports writer at the Manchester Times, where his coverage and stories won Tennessee Press Association awards in 2016 and 2017.

He’s always had a knack for storytelling. Moore’s written content for junior golf tournaments and helped to amplify the “People Not Profits” message of credit unions. When he’s not writing, Moore loves to travel, laugh and put his mental health into the hands of the Tennessee Titans during football season.