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What To Do When You Relapse On Alcohol

by Landmark Recovery

February 12, 2020
A woman holding coffee and overlooking the water thinking about how to prevent a relapse on alcohol

Alcohol is the most misused substance in the United States, and while not everyone who uses alcohol will develop problems, it’s highly addictive. Today, we’ll be digging deeper into what happens if an individual was to relapse on alcohol.

Before we get started, time for a quick refresher on the issue at hand…


Alcohol And Addiction

Each year, the government performs a survey to gather information on substance and drug use in the United States. The National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) gives the government, healthcare providers, and other interested parties a detailed look at drug use, abuse, and addiction within the US.

In 2018, the NSDUH reported that 86.3% of adults had partaken in alcohol, and 70% of them had done so during the last year. Over 50% of those surveyed had consumed alcohol in the last month.

While drinking alcohol in moderation is fine for many, others struggle badly with this substance. Addiction to alcohol can stem from many things, and one of the first steps toward abusing alcohol or becoming addicted to it is binge drinking.

In the United States, over 10% of children live with an adult who abuses or is addicted to alcohol. This has a profound effect on their upbringing and can have repercussions that continue through their lives.

For this reason, may people seek treatment for their alcohol use disorder. In the same 2018 NSDUH mentioned above, 9.2 million men and 5.3 million women reported having alcohol use disorder, but only 7.9% of them had sought treatment. 401,000 children between 12 and 17 also reported alcohol use disorder, with a measly 5% receiving treatment.

Treatment is almost always necessary for navigating the complex path from addiction to alcohol to recovery, but addiction is a disease and can never be truly cured.

Even though someone has been through treatment and has been sober for decades, addiction can rear its ugly head anytime and the person suffering with alcohol addiction can relapse on alcohol.


What Is An Alcohol Relapse?

A woman holding coffee and overlooking the water thinking about how to prevent a relapse on alcohol

When someone with an addiction is making their way through recovery, they abstain from whatever substance it is they are addicted to. For the purposes of today, that substance is alcohol.

Throughout recovery, this person works to change their behavior and they will strive to avoid alcohol. Oftentimes, an alcohol relapse will occur, though.

What is a relapse, then?

Well, different people define it in different ways, but the clinical definition of relapse is when a person returns to the behavior or substance that they were addicted to. A lapse and a relapse are not the same thing clinically, although many people confuse these two situations.

A lapse is when the person has a short slip from sobriety back into alcohol but is able to rapidly self-correct.

A relapse is when the person jumps off the path to recovery and dives headlong back into all the destructive behaviors and substances they were abstaining from. Where a lapse is a brief period of return to addictive behavior, a relapse is long-term and generally means starting recovery from scratch.

Some people will have many lapses over their recovery, and these people are more likely to have a full-bore relapse.

For those who are in recovery but on the road to relapse, it’s often obvious to friends and family. There are many signs pointing to trouble…


Warning Signs Of A Relapse

There are many common warning signs that point to relapse when it comes to addiction.

If you, a friend or a loved one struggles with addiction, you should be on the lookout for these warning signs:

  • Being overly positive
  • Changes in normal routines (sleep, personal hygiene, appetite, etc.)
  • Depression
  • Difficulty coping with stress
  • Doubts of maintaining sobriety
  • Hopelessness or feelings of self-pity
  • Increasing anxiety
  • Overconfidence / minimizing addiction
  • Regularly missing therapy or recovery groups
  • Spending time with people who encourage drinking
  • Use of addictive substances other than alcohol
  • Withdrawal from social activities


Stages Of Alcohol Relapse

Relapsing into addictive behaviors doesn’t typically happen overnight, rather it happens over time.

For those spiraling into alcohol relapse, there are several common stages. When the individual is facing alcohol relapse, they will go through emotional, mental, and physical stages of alcohol relapse.

In 2015, Dr. Steven Melemis published an article in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine which supplied hard evidence for these 3 stages of alcohol relapse.

Emotional Relapse: When a person is facing emotional relapse, they are facing psychological and emotional withdrawals from the alcohol instead of physical ones. This type of withdrawal is also called post-acute withdrawal syndrome. This can last for years after an individual stops drinking.

In this phase of alcohol relapse, the individual will experience symptoms of defensiveness, anxiety, mood swings, intolerance, isolation, anger, poor eating and sleep habits, and they might refuse to go to meetings.

Mental Relapse: This phase of alcohol relapse is a tough one because it might not be outwardly obvious. This phase is typically felt and fought internally.

During this phase of alcohol relapse, the individual will likely spend a lot of time reminiscing about the things they did, places they went, and people they spent time with while they were living in addiction. They will likely trivialize the negatives and glamorize the things that happened during that period. Often, the individual will start to think about going back to drinking, or they might even actively plan to do so.

Physical Relapse: When an individual struggling with alcohol addiction reaches this point, their hand is on the bottle and they are already falling off the path to recovery.

Some people quickly realize what they’ve done and normalize while others will spend months back in the sorry throes of addiction.


What Causes Someone To Relapse?

A woman overlooking the water thinking about how she can prevent a relapse on alcohol.

Many people wonder what causes individuals to go back to a life of addiction, and the simple truth is that there is no clear cut answer.

It was once believed that those with addictions simply had no morals or self-control, and while a lot of people still incorrectly feel that this is the case, research has shown this line of thinking to be false.

Though not entirely understood, we do know that addiction has many causes. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine as well as the American Medical Association, addiction is a disease.

If left untreated, addiction can become life-threatening. As such, it’s vital to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of addiction in those we love. Once they are on the road to recovery, we must be aware of what could send them into an alcohol relapse.

There are many different things that could send an individual with addiction running back to their drug or substance of choice.

We’ll explore some of these right now…


Relapse Triggers

For those who struggle with alcoholism, there are many triggers that can lead to relapse.


Withdrawal: When a person is addicted to alcohol, their brain and body crave it. When the alcohol is no longer available, the brain and body will go through withdrawals. There are many symptoms that come along with alcohol withdrawal such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Insomnia or extreme fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nightmares
  • Shakiness or tremors


At times, these symptoms can be extremely severe, and can drive the person experiencing them back to alcohol. After a few days, these withdrawal symptoms tend to dissipate but it can take some time for the person’s body to adapt to living without alcohol.

Distressing Emotions: For a lot of people, one of the primary reasons driving them to alcohol in the first place is stress and the inability to cope with their situation. When the alcohol is gone, the stress and situations still exist. If the person struggling with alcohol addiction doesn’t learn proper coping mechanisms, they are likely to turn back to alcohol when things get tough.

Pressure From Friends: When someone leaves alcohol or another addictive substance behind, they tend to leave behind friends, too. Also, alcohol is often consumed in social settings. When journeying to recovery, it can be difficult to be in situations where alcohol is present, and you’re the only one without a glass of wine. The person can also become lonely without the friends that they once spent time with.

Testing Self-Control: Many people on the road to recovery from alcohol addiction begin to think that they are doing just fine, so they test their boundaries. Unfortunately, “just one drink” can easily spiral into a relapse for some people.


Does Relapse Equal Failure?

Many people mistakenly think that relapse equals failure, but this just isn’t true.

Research has shown that relapse is generally just a part of the recovery process, being seen as simply a setback on the road to recovery from addiction.

More than 85% of people recovering from addiction will relapse and return to their substance of choice within a year of treatment. Statistics show that nearly two-thirds of those in recovery treatment will relapse within weeks.

Instead of seeing relapse as a failure, it should be viewed as an opportunity to climb back on the wagon and keep trekking on.


Bouncing Back After Alcohol Relapse

A man thinking about how he can get back on track after his relapse on alcohol

So, what do you do when you are facing alcohol relapse?

How can you recover from this distressing setback?

First thing’s first, do not feel ashamed! As we said, relapse is often a part of recovery. Use your feelings in this situation to propel you back toward sobriety.

Seek support from loved ones. If your addiction to alcohol has caused family problems in the past, this might be difficult. Be honest with your friends and family and humble yourself. They are likely willing to help you.

Reach out to a counselor or recovery coach, especially if you can return to a recovery program. Having an accountability partner is ideal, even more so if you can meet with them face-to-face.

For anyone heading to rehab for alcohol addiction, becoming dedicated to a plan for recovery, and not becoming overconfident about sobriety can mitigate the chance of relapse. This is why it’s imperative that you seek support, get treatment, and form a recovery plan.


What To Do Next

It can be heartbreaking to see a friend or loved one return to something that’s damaging to their lives. Seeing them re-engage with alcohol can make you feel like everything you and they have invested in their recovery has been for nothing.

Many people would give anything to help their friend or loved one overcome addiction, but the truth is that no matter what you do, this is a battle that must be fought by the person who is facing addiction. You can be there for support and encouragement, but you can’t keep them from making the choices they will make or from doing the things they will do.

The Recovery Center at University Hospitals in Cleveland cautions that you must “hold addicts accountable for their recovery” but you can also support them along the way.

Don’t blame your loved one or shame them for their addiction or relapse. Instead, show grace and empathy. Be compassionate and loving toward them.

Encourage your loved one to seek treatment. Though 12-step programs certainly have their place, for some people the only true path to recovery will be through individualized plans that can be determined through treatment.

When it comes to battling addiction, expert treatment from our professionals is only a phone call away. Here at Landmark Recovery, we have plenty of experience helping individuals and families through the pain of addiction and relapse. We are standing by to help you and your loved ones over this bump and get you back on the road to recovery and sobriety. Call us today and we’ll help you or your loved one get back on track.


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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.