Alcohol Relapse: Signs, Triggers & Prevention

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Last Updated - 05/10/2024

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Updated 05/10/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Relapse is a natural part of alcohol and substance use disorder recovery, with rates suggesting that around two-thirds of individuals with alcohol dependence relapse within the first six months.
  • Various factors, such as unresolved emotions, stress, exposure to past drinking environments, and inadequate social support, can trigger alcohol relapse.
  • Changes in physical health, appearance, and sleep patterns can be indicators of alcohol relapse.
  • Changes in daily routines, re-engagement with old social circles, irregular attendance at recovery meetings, increased secrecy, mood swings, and isolation can all be behavioral signs of alcohol relapse.
  • Anxiety, depression, and cravings are key psychological signs that may precede alcohol relapse.
  • Factors such as stress, negative emotions, positive emotions, social pressure, and overconfidence can increase the risk of alcohol relapse.
  • Strategies for preventing alcohol relapse include therapy, medication-assisted treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, healthy habits, and admission into a rehab facility.

What Is Alcohol Relapse?

Alcohol relapse occurs when an individual returns to drinking after a period of abstinence. It is a common and challenging aspect of the recovery journey, with rates suggesting that around two-thirds of individuals with alcohol dependence relapse within the first six months. Over the course of substance use disorder recovery, between 40 and 60% of people will go through relapse. This shows that relapse is a natural part of alcohol and substance use disorder recovery. If you do happen to relapse, it does not signify a failure on your part. However, it might mean that professional treatment might be needed to get you back on track.

What Are Some Triggers for Alcohol Relapse?

Relapse can be triggered by various factors, including unresolved emotions, stress, exposure to past drinking environments, and inadequate social support. These triggers can lead to a cascade of warning signs that may indicate an impending relapse.

  • Emotional triggers, such as bottling up feelings or failing to engage in self-care, can initiate the early stages of relapse.
  • Psychological indicators, like low motivation, negative moods, and cravings, point towards a vulnerability to relapse.
  • Social factors, including minimal support systems or exposure to past drinking cues, can also contribute to relapse risks.

Physical Signs of Alcohol Relapse

Recognizing the physical signs of alcohol relapse is crucial for those in recovery and their support networks. A relapse indicates a return to alcohol use after a period of abstinence, and it often presents with various physical indicators. Research divides relapse into stages, including an initial lapse followed by a full relapse. This distinction is essential for timely intervention.

  • Changes in physical health can be a significant indicator of relapse. A compromised immune system, apparent through frequent illnesses, may suggest the body is struggling due to renewed alcohol use.
  • Alterations in appearance, such as a neglected personal hygiene or sudden weight changes, can also be warning signs of slipping back into old habits.
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, ranging from insomnia to oversleeping, may reflect the turmoil of relapse and the body’s struggle to regulate without alcohol.

Behavioral Signs of Alcohol Relapse

Recognizing the behavioral signs of alcohol relapse is crucial for the timely intervention and support needed to guide an individual back to recovery. Relapse can be a subtle process, and the following behaviors may indicate an individual is on the brink of or already experiencing a relapse:

  • Noticeable changes in daily routines or social activities, often leading to isolation from supportive networks.
  • Re-engagement with old social circles associated with previous drinking habits.
  • Attendance at recovery meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), becomes irregular or stops altogether.
  • Increased secrecy or deceptive behavior, possibly to hide drinking or to avoid discussing personal challenges and emotions.
  • Display of mood swings or unexplained irritability, which may be a result of unresolved emotions or stress.
  • Physical signs of stress, such as anxiety or depression, which can be precursors to mental relapse stages.

Psychological Signs of Alcohol Relapse

Recognizing the psychological signs of alcohol relapse is a critical component of supporting recovery. Emotional and psychological shifts often precede the physical act of drinking again. Some of the key psychological signs include anxiety, depression, and cravings. 

  • Anxiety may manifest as a fear of judgment, a fear of not measuring up, or a fear of living without alcohol. Such fears can be paralyzing and often stem from a lack of healthy life skills or coping mechanisms. Research shows that individuals in late-stage recovery may experience specific fears, such as the fear of relapse itself, which can ironically trigger the relapse process.
  • Depression can manifest as feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or a lack of motivation. These difficult emotions may drive an individual back to alcohol use as a form of self-medication. 
  • An individual might experience cravings, or a strong desire to consume alcohol. This is often coupled with romanticizing past substance use or feeling indifferent about recovery.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Relapse

Several factors can increase the risk of relapse, making it important for those in recovery to be aware of these triggers and seek support when needed.

  • Stress: High levels of stress, whether from work, relationships, or other sources, can increase the risk of relapse. Stress management techniques are essential for individuals in recovery.
  • Negative emotions: Feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration can lead to relapse if not addressed. Learning healthy coping mechanisms is crucial for managing these emotions without resorting to alcohol.
  • Positive emotions: While this may seem counterintuitive, positive emotions elicited by celebratory occasions or driving by a favorite drinking spot could trigger a relapse.
  • Social pressure: Being around people who drink heavily or encourage drinking can be a strong trigger for relapse. Building a supportive network of sober friends and family members is important.
  • Overconfidence: Feeling too confident in one’s ability to resist alcohol can lead to complacency and a lack of vigilance, increasing the risk of relapse. Ongoing support and involvement in a recovery program can help maintain focus and motivation.

Strategies for Preventing Alcohol Relapse

Preventing alcohol relapse is a critical component of recovery for individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD). A multifaceted approach, often recommended by experts in the field, includes a combination of therapy, medication, and support systems. Current literature emphasizes the importance of developing a personalized relapse prevention plan that addresses the unique needs of the individual, including underlying causes of addiction and creating a supportive environment for long-term recovery.

Key components for a robust prevention plan include:

  • Regular individual therapy sessions with a licensed addiction counselor to address the psychological aspects of addiction.
  • Medication-assisted treatment, such as naltrexone and acamprosate, which has been shown to reduce the risk of relapse.
  • Engagement in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors related to substance use.
  • Participation in support groups to foster a community of peer support and shared experiences.
  • Creating healthy habits like regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and meditation. 
  • Getting admitted into an accredited alcohol addiction rehab facility. Treatment programs range from inpatient and outpatient rehab to partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs.

Given the chronic nature of addiction, relapse rates for substance use disorders are comparable to those for other chronic illnesses. However, with a comprehensive and proactive prevention strategy, individuals can significantly improve their chances of maintaining continuous recovery.

Get Help for Alcohol Relapse Today

Getting help for alcoholism at The Recovery Village Columbus can greatly improve the chances of overcoming alcohol addiction. The center’s team of professionals works closely with each patient to create and continuously adjust treatment plans that ensure long-term success.The Recovery Village Columbus offers several treatment options, including medical detox, inpatient rehab, and more to provide you with personalized care at our Joint Commission-accredited facility. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to take the first step toward living an alcohol-free life.


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