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Understanding Mental Relapse: Tips for Preventing Escalation

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

After you complete an addiction treatment program, you will begin to experience new challenges in your recovery. Because inpatient rehab centers shelter you from outside triggers, sometimes these challenges can feel overwhelming. This is why it is important to have a strong and supportive community to lean on during early recovery.

While it is possible to avoid relapse altogether, relapse is common among individuals recovering from addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the addiction relapse rate is between 40 to 60%.[1]

Preventing relapse can be hard, but when you are armed with all of the facts and techniques you need, you can maintain long-term sobriety.

One of the first things you should learn is that relapse occurs in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. Once you have reached a mental relapse, you must double down on your recovery maintenance techniques to prevent yourself from experiencing a physical relapse.

What is Mental Relapse?

When you imagine an addiction relapse, you probably picture someone abusing drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence. However, it is important to know that this is only the final stage of relapse. Before you begin physically abusing substances, you may experience an emotional and mental relapse.

First, to understand what a mental relapse is you must be aware of emotional relapses. Emotional relapse is the first stage of addiction relapse and is characterized by experiencing significant emotional struggles. During this stage, you might begin to neglect your emotional health and experience high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, or loneliness.

If you do not treat your emotional issues, you will move onto the second stage of addiction relapse which is referred to as a mental relapse. This stage is characterized by returning to your old coping mechanisms and thinking about or romanticizing substance abuse as a form of self-medication. You might even begin to plan out ways to physically relapse or begin bargaining and coming up with situations in which substance abuse would be “acceptable”.

Unfortunately, if you do not address a mental relapse, you will return to your substance abuse and experience a full-blown physical relapse. This is why it is so important to be aware of what a mental relapse is and how you can prevent it from escalating.

The Signs of a Mental Relapse

While occasional thoughts of substance abuse are normal in recovery, a mental relapse involves a preoccupation with drug or alcohol misuse. The normal thoughts of substance abuse are fleeting, while a mental relapse is characterized by obsessively planning out acceptable manners in which you could abuse drugs.

Signs of mental relapse include:

  • Cravings or urges to use drugs and alcohol
  • Thinking about the people, places, or things associated with your past substance abuse
  • Hanging out with old friends you used drugs with
  • Going to the old places you used to abuse drugs or alcohol at
  • Minimizing the severity of your past substance abuse
  • Glamorizing or romanticizing substance abuse without remembering the consequences
  • Thinking of scenarios in which it would be acceptable to abuse substances, such as after the death of a loved one or a car accident that requires pain medication
  • Thinking that you can abuse a certain substance because you were not technically addicted to it
  • Imagining ways to control your substance abuse
  • Looking for opportunities to abuse substances
  • Fantasizing about or planning the use of drugs and alcohol

It can be extremely easy to transition from a mental relapse to a physical one. As a result, you must be armed with techniques and skills you can use to prevent your mental relapse from escalating.

How Do I Prevent a Mental Relapse From Getting Worse?

If you are currently in the mental stage of relapse, it’s time to double down on your recovery maintenance techniques. But what can you do to prevent a mental relapse from escalating? How can you ensure that you do not transition into the physical stage of relapse?

While preventing relapse can be difficult when you are in the mental stage, it is possible. Consider using the following techniques to prevent yourself from returning to drug or alcohol abuse:

  • Talk to a trusted peer, like your recovery sponsor or a sober friend
  • Imagine the consequences of substance abuse, like losing your friends or going back to jail
  • Go on a walk when you feel the urge to abuse substances, as most cravings only last 30 minutes
  • Take it one day, one hour, or one minute at a time
  • Use relaxation techniques like mindfulness, meditation, or yoga
  • Call your therapist
  • Journal your feelings
  • Write down the things that are triggering you so you can plan on how to avoid them
  • Go to a recovery meeting
  • Engage in a sober-friendly activity that you find fun, like painting, playing sports with friends, or going on a hike
  • Create a relapse prevention plan that outlines exactly what you will do if you start showing signs of emotional or mental relapse

Doing these things can distract you at the moment when you are feeling like abusing substances. Once your urges pass, you should plan on attending extra recovery meetings and visiting your therapist more often to work on the issues that have caused you to experience a mental relapse.

Find Help for an Addiction Relapse

If you or a loved one experience a physical relapse, it’s time to consider entering addiction treatment again. Typically, enduring an addiction relapse indicates that you did not have what you needed to remain sober long-term. Going back to drug and alcohol rehab can help you brush up on your recovery skills and provide you with what you need to maintain lifelong recovery.

To learn more about our addiction treatment programs, contact South Carolina Addiction Treatment Center today.