Why does relapse occur?

The hardest part of recovery can be dealing with relapse. Why does relapse occur and how can you cope? Lisa Epsich explores here.

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Statistically, most people recovering from addiction will return to their drug use at least once during their ongoing attempts to recover. While relapse during recovery is not inevitable, it is more likely to happen than not.

As a spouse of a recovering drug addict, I can tell you that the hardest part of helping a husband with drug addiction and recovery is dealing with relapse. So why does relapse happen? What can you do to support an addict going through relapse? And what are some ways to prevent drug relapse in the future?  We explore here. Then, we invite your questions about relapse at the end.

Why does relapse happen?

Abusive drugs generate a large release of a chemical called dopamine into the brain. Our brain naturally releases this chemical when we are doing something that creates pleasure, such as eating chocolate or having great sex. This chemical is what produces that euphoric feeling. The amount of dopamine released by drugs is more concentrated and intense than the amount normally released by the brain.

As the drugs are used more and more, the brain gets used to receiving these large concentrations of dopamine so it reduces its own normal activity. The drugs also start to destroy the dopamine receptors in the brain. This makes it increasingly difficult to achieve the euphoric feeling. Because of the changes in the brain it becomes difficult to achieve any good feelings without the drug.

The good news is that the brain does have the ability to recover. The bad news is that cravings for drugs can persist for weeks or months after initial withdrawal.

When an addict attempts to stay clean for any length of time, he or she is faced with the mess that they have created. This, combined with the inability to feel good, causes strong cravings to get high again. You might think that they would realize that getting high will just create more problems, but for the addict, the urge to feel pleasure (high) again can become overwhelming.

What can increase the chances of relapse?

There is a lot stacked up against the addict though. Not only has their brain been affected, but in most cases their life has been turned upside down. Friendships have been destroyed. They have lost the respect and trust of their family members and loved ones. They may have lost their job and many of their belongings. Their self-worth is at an all-time low. As they look up at the mountain of obstacles, they can become overwhelmed and give up.

There are factors that can increase the likelihood of relapse. Some of the common ones are:

Stressful situations. If the recovering addict has not learned new ways of handling stress or negative moods, they may turn to their drug of choice to cover up their emotions. This is one reason that long-term success is more likely to happen with professional help or guidance.

Times of celebration. In the past, this may have been a time for the addict to let loose and use drugs. Therefore, celebrating a holiday, birthday, or some other type of event can trigger cravings for drug-use.

Drug related cues. For a recovering addict there may be certain places, sights, sounds, or smells that remind them of their drug-use days. Encountering these reminders can be enough to trigger strong cravings that are difficult to ignore.

Failing to stick to the recommendations of doctors or counselors. Aftercare treatment is just as important as the initial treatment for addiction. If a recovering addict goes through some type of in-patient or out-patient treatment, but does not continue going to meetings or attending follow-up appointments, they are more likely to fall back into their old patterns.

Low motivation to change. If the recovering addict has gone through the motions of treatment (maybe treatment was mandated by a court or forced by family members), but hasn’t reached a state of wanting to change, they are more likely to fall back into addiction. This shouldn’t discourage family and friends from pushing an addict toward recovery. Most addicts need a push. Just be aware that until they accept their need for change they may continue struggling.

How can relapse be avoided?

The recovering addict must learn to avoid triggers whenever possible. For those triggers that are unavoidable, they must learn the skills to handle these situations without allowing their cravings to take over. This is why treatment and aftercare is so important. Attempting to quit without proper training and guidance leaves an addict unprepared for the road ahead.

In order to avoid relapse, most recovering people need to be around friends or loved ones that will understand and be there for them when they are in danger of relapse. Because this understanding can be difficult for family members who have already been hurt so much by their drug use, having a sponsor with longtime sobriety under their belt can be one of the best support systems.

Finally, there are some things that family members and friends can do to support long-term recovery:

1. Get educated. The family must understand the recovery process and the challenges that their loved one will face.

2. Provide a sober environment. If alcohol or drugs (including narcotic prescription drugs) are available in the home, then the odds of staying clean are unlikely. The entire household must be abstinent.

3. Seek help. Family members should focus on their own recovery as well. Support groups like Al-Anon are just as important once the addict accepts treatment. Sobriety can cause new strains on family relationships and this can be a tough time for everyone involved. The healthiest way to handle these changes is for each person to stay focused on his or her path.

4. Assist your loved one with recovery support needs. Offering a ride to and from meetings, helping with childcare, or offering assistance in locating sober-housing or employment is not enabling if they are sticking with their recovery program. The recovering addict is facing an uphill climb, so having the help of loved ones can sometimes help the momentum and give them hope.

Although recovery can be a rough road, with the right treatment and support, long-term recovery is possible. In fact, a promising statistic is that over half of the people who get treatment eventually reach a state of sustained recovery.

About the author
Lisa Espich is the author of the multi award-winning book, Soaring Above Co-Addiction: Helping your loved one get clean, while creating the life of your dreams. For additional articles, resources, and a free preview chapter of Soaring Above Co-Addiction visit her website. Her book is available at bookstores everywhere and at Twin Feather Publishing.
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