Planning for Alcohol or Drug Relapse


A relapse is returning to using alcohol or drugs after having quit. Stopping substance use, whether you use alcohol or drugs, can be very hard. And having a relapse is common.

A short-term return to using is sometimes called a lapse. And a long-term return to using may be called a relapse.

If you return to using alcohol or drugs, that doesn't mean that you or your treatment has failed. It may mean that you just slipped up. If this is true for you, accept the mistake and move on. Try to find out why you returned to using. Then make changes in your life that can help you quit for good. You also may need more treatment or another type of treatment. Or you may need more time in support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.

You might have several relapses, whether you have tried to quit substance use on your own or have had treatment. As time goes on, relapses usually occur less often and are shorter. Some people never have a relapse.

What can trigger a relapse?

Triggers are things that might cause you to have a relapse from alcohol or drugs. They may include:

  • Certain people. Running into people you drank or used drugs with could trigger memories and a desire to use alcohol or drugs again. If you meet these people, they could urge you to use alcohol or drugs.
  • Certain places. Walking into a bar, a friend's home, or a park where you drank or used drugs could trigger a craving. Even being in the same kind of area could cause cravings.
  • Certain things. You may link objects to alcohol or drug use. For example, seeing a syringe or pipe could trigger memories.
  • Certain times. Certain days or times of day, holidays, or weather could trigger a craving. It depends on your memories of alcohol or drug use.
  • Certain smells, sounds, and sensations. The smell of the drug, cigarette, or a food could be a trigger. A rainy day, a song, or a TV show could also cause a craving.
  • Stress. Stress is a major trigger. Any situation where you feel stress makes a relapse more likely.
  • Certain situations. Social activities, parties, or being alone could also make you think about having a drink or looking for drugs.

It may be helpful to write down your triggers and think about them. Are some more likely to cause a relapse than others? Rate your triggers from most likely to cause a relapse to least likely to cause a relapse.

Now you can make a plan to manage your triggers. You might need to avoid certain situations or people or stay away from a favorite place or activity. If you know you can't avoid a trigger, bring a friend with you for support.

How can you deal with a relapse?

If you begin using drugs or alcohol again, follow these steps.

  • Stop drinking or using the drug at once.

    Get rid of it. Pour it down the sink or flush it down the toilet. Leave the situation you are in if you can.

  • Keep calm.

    Remember your plan for what to do if you have a relapse. Remind yourself how hard you've worked to stay sober or drug-free.

  • Get support right away.

    Call the people listed on your relapse plan, or go to the places your plan lists.

  • Think about what happened.

    When you've stopped drinking or using drugs, find out what caused you to relapse. Think about how you can prevent it from happening again. Put this in your plan.


Current as of: November 15, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
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