Shoreline Sober Living, San Diego, CA
What counts as a relapse in recovery?

When it comes to substance disorder abuse, what actually counts as a relapse? Individuals who are on the road to sobriety are often confused by what a relapse entails. Many questions are unanswered around the term “relapse”. If you are a recovering drug abuser and are placed onto highly addictive medication, are you technically relapsing? If you decide to go out with some friends for a drink, does this mean that you have broken your road to sobriety? Are these types of scenarios counted as a relapse? The majority of recovering individuals and their family members are unsure of what counts as a relapse, leaving people in a state of uncertainty.

Within the medical industry, there is a term called “slip, “ which often gets misinterpreted by many. Friends and family members often believe that the phrase “slip” and “relapse” have the same meaning; however, this is far from the truth. Medical professionals distinguish the term relapse and slip by diving deep into the recovering addict’s mental intentions, and why they ended up substance-abusing during their long term period of sobriety.

To a professional, relapse is considered only when a recovery plan is wholly dismissed, with no form of guilt or intention to regain sobriety by the recovering addict. The term slip is considered to be a single, unplanned use of drugs and/or alcohol. The individual will admit where they went wrong and immediately start the recovery program to continue on the road to lifelong sobriety.

Relapse after sobriety

Relapse is a normal part of recovery; it can be perilous for drugs and alcohol. If a recovering individual abuses a toxic substance more during their relapse than they used to before they turned to sobriety, they could very easily overdose. Their bodies will no longer be able to adapt to their previous level of substance use disorders.  Addiction recovery is a long and hard road to successfully stay on, especially if an individual does not have the necessary support system. Various signs indicate an individual’s mental health is declining, and that there is a high chance they are about to abuse again.

Identifying and understanding the three signs of a relapse

Current research has suggested that when an individual relapses, it is unlikely to be an impulsive decision. A relapse in most cases is a gradual process where the individual will be undergoing an unconscious mental battle; this can go on for several weeks if not months. Drug and alcohol relapse signs can be sectioned into three categories, the first being:

Stage one: Emotional

The first stage an individual will go through during the process of relapsing is emotional. During this stage, the recovering individual will not consciously be thinking about abusing again. However, as their emotions intensify, their brain will become unsettled and start reminding the individual of what it felt like to use illicit substances once again.

An example that an individual may be about to relapse is:

  •  If they suddenly become cold, unwilling to socialise and begin to come up with various excuses to miss therapy sessions or meetings. The justification will be based on how they feel. Regular habits such as appetite, exercise, sleeping patterns and relationships with family or friends will begin to decline and become irregular.


Without a long-term drug relapse prevention plan, most people will be unsuccessful in their attempts to remain sober.

Stage two: Mental

Stage two is viewed as a mental health disorder. The recovering individual will begin re-creating vivid memories or creating scenarios where they are physically abusing again. These disturbing images can pop up at any time during the day or night and often interfere with dreams.

This stage can be extremely intense for the individual to go through without professional and family support. The recovering substance abuser will begin to have several mental battles between:

  1. Wanting to stay on the road to sobriety.
  2. Abusing just one more time. A part of the brain will over glorify the recovering addict’s past life which involved their substance abuse.

Depending on how intense these mental scenarios become and whether the recovering substance abusers have asked for help or support will ultimately determine how high the possibility of relapsing is as an outcome. If the individual is open with how they feel with a professional and have loving support from the family, the likelihood of relapsing will significantly decrease. Recovering individuals who hide how they feel will have the highest chances of relapsing.

Stage three: Physical

The last stage is physical; the individual can no longer cope with how they feel or the mental scenarios they are dealing with. The majority of the time, individuals will convince themselves that their relapse will be a one-time thing—one last time to satisfy their mind and body so they can go back to a sober life.

If an individual is to relapse, they cannot simply go straight back on the same treatment plan. A medical professional will need to make suitable adjustments, ensuring the individual’s outcome will have a higher possibility of success once they are ready to try again.

What to do if you have relapsed

If you have unfortunately relapsed, no matter the substance, do not ever punish yourself. The road of addiction recovery is never going to be easy or comfortable, and the majority of people will relapse at least once, within their treatment program. Relapse is part of the recovery progress. Many individuals will push themselves into a deep depression by obsessing over negative feelings.

At Shoreline Sober Living we understand that treatment programs need to keep up with ever-changing behaviour and establish new habits to ensure you reach true sobriety. Our programs are structured to ultimately enhance our residents’ professional and personal growth, ensuring they are responsible, self-supporting and reliable.

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