Veteran's Health Library Menu

Health Encyclopedia

Understanding Alcohol or Drug Lapse or Relapse

Stopping substance misuse, whether it's alcohol or drugs you are using, can be very hard. Very few people succeed the first time they try. A lapse or relapse is likely to happen. Persistence in honing your recovery skills is the key to success.

Lapse vs. relapse

  • A lapse is the first time you use a drug or alcohol again after you have quit, or brief episodes of use at later points.

  • A relapse is not being able to stay drug-free or sober over time. It can happen if you have a series of lapses close together or a lapse that leads to heavier drug or alcohol use over a longer period. It often happens a few months after you quit using drugs or alcohol.

A lapse or relapse doesn't mean you or your treatment has failed. It may mean that you just slipped up. If this is true for you, try to find out why you lapsed. Then make changes in your life so that it won't happen again. You can work with your healthcare provider, counselor or 12-step sponsor to identify whether you may need more treatment. For example, perhaps adding a medicine to reduce your alcohol cravings or more time in support groups may be needed, or perhaps you would find it helpful to learn new ways to manage stress.

You might have several lapses or relapses, whether you have tried to quit substance misuse on your own or have had treatment. These can be temporary setbacks to recovery that offer an opportunity to learn and to strengthen your recovery plan. As time goes on, lapses, if they happen at all, usually happen less often and are shorter. It's also possible to never have a relapse. You can increase your chances of not relapsing by taking advantage of all the treatment options available such as relapse prevention counseling, medicine to reduce craving and prevent relapse and active engagement in mutual help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Have a relapse (or crisis) management plan

Accept that you may have a relapse. If you think about what to do about a relapse before it happens, it may be easier to deal with.

Talk with people involved in your recovery about what to do if you have a relapse. These people may include your healthcare provider, counselor, family, friends, and support group sponsor. Decide who you can call, where you can go, and what to do if there is a problem. People you can turn to include your sponsor, doctor, counselor, or a crisis hotline.

Think about your triggers

Triggers are things that might tempt you to have a lapse. They may include:

  • Certain people. Running into people you drank or used drugs with could trigger memories and a desire to use drugs or alcohol again. If you meet these people, they could urge you to use drugs or alcohol.

  • Certain places. Walking into a bar, a friend's house, 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 drug or alcohol use. For example, seeing a syringe or crack 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 drug or alcohol 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 plan for how to deal with 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, think about bringing a friend with you for support.

If you lapse or relapse

If you begin using drugs or alcohol again:

  • Stop drinking or using the drug right away. Get rid of it. Pour it down the sink or flush it down the toilet. Leave the situation you are in.

  • Keep calm. Remember that you have a plan and remind yourself how hard you've worked to stay sober or drug-free.

  • Get support right away. Call the people listed on your plan or go to the places your plan lists. If you are not in treatment, consider going for help. If you have a mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression, get help for that as well.

  • When you've stopped drinking or using, think about what happened. Think about what caused you to relapse and how you can prevent it from happening again. Put this into your plan.

If you are thinking about drinking or using drugs, take action to avoid it. Find support to help you manage the temptation.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 9/1/2019
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
Disclaimer - Opens 'Disclaimer' in Dialog Window | Help | About Veterans Health Library