The truth of addiction relapse prevention
Addiction relapse often seems to sneak up on people, leaving them feeling scared, hopeless and helpless. The key is understanding how relapse works – without that, we can’t understand relapse prevention.
You’ve probably heard people joke that it’s easy to quit smoking and drinking – they’ve quit dozens of times. There’s a lot of truth to that; relapse prevention can be harder than getting sober itself. Most of what we do in addiction treatment and afterwards is focused on relapse prevention.
Resuming drinking, using drugs, or engaging in any other addictive behaviour is when a relapse has happened. However, it begins much earlier, with noticeable changes in our thinking, emotions and actions. If we know the warning signs and act when we see them, we can nip relapse in the bud and make relapse prevention manageable. What are these early warning signs? Some patterns of thought, emotion and action are typical of recovery, and some patterns are typical of active addiction. The warning flags go up if we see our patterns of thinking, feeling or acting changing from healthy back to addictive.
Understanding how relapse works
To plan for relapse prevention, we must identify our own healthy and addictive patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. It’s easiest to start with thoughts – the way we think about the world and ourselves, determines our emotional responses and actions. Generally, thought patterns that are dishonest, sneaky, grandiose, self-hating, blaming, or focused on unrealistic expectations or wishes are dangerous. Dangerous emotions include resentment, self-pity, shame, unrealistic fears and apathy. Warning-flag actions include isolating, returning to places and people connected with our addictions, and neglecting recovery activities, basic self-care and structure in our lives.
Knowing the warning signs is half the battle in relapse prevention; the other half is what we do if we see them. That’s simple, though not always easy – we stop the unhealthy pattern and replace it with its healthy counterpart; we talk about the warning signs with counsellors, sponsors, or others we trust who understand recovery; and if all else fails, we help other people maintain their own sobriety – as they say in AA, that seems to work when nothing else does.
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