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Relapse for Alcoholism: Triggers, Tips, & Treatment

Relapsing on alcohol can cause deep feelings of regret and shame. You might have done everything you thought you were supposed to do to stay sober, but you fall prey to relapse anyway. But take heart, because you don’t have to get stuck in relapse mode.

Alcoholism is a disease that affects more than 15 million Americans per year. Therefore, it’s one of the most common substance abuse issues in the U.S. Drinking patterns can include binge drinking, over-consumption, and alcoholism. Despite the negative consequences associated with drinking, substance abuse disorder persists. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of those struggling with addiction will relapse at least once while traveling the road to recovery.

That’s a lot of collective relapses. But here’s the good news: You can view a relapse as a normal part of the recovery process, and you can learn valuable life lessons along your journey that will keep your relapses to a minimum.


If you’re struggling with alcohol addiction, having a relapse means that you start drinking again after being sober for a considerable amount of time.  You may have quit on your own, or you may have quit with the help of a counselor or alcohol rehab center. You may have been sober for days or years, but for one reason or another, you decided to drink again.

In the early days of recovery, cravings can be quite intense. You might find yourself obsessing about having a drink. You want to stay sober, but you also want a drink.  This phenomenon is especially true if you’re struggling with something else in life, such as a job or relationship. No matter how hard you try to stay sober, you may grab a drink because that’s the way you’ve learned to cope with stressors.


Some people treat relapse as if it’s the most horrible thing ever, but the reality is that relapse is a common part of a chronic disease. In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that around 90 percent of individuals struggling with alcoholism relapse within four years of their initial treatment.

Some people don’t favor the viewpoint that relapses are common, but those that do state that change is a process.  Recovery is a zigzagging line with ups and downs, which sometimes involves relapsing. However, you have the choice to view a relapse as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a failure. If you’re chronically relapsing, addiction experts state that you should attend treatment, even if you’ve already attended it.


Some addiction experts theorize that relapsing is due to a buildup of various problems. An individual may struggle with low self-esteem, shame, poor coping skills, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They may be having relationship or money issues. Over time, the buildup of these problems can create a lot of stress and pain, so the only way they can get relief from that pain is drinking.

Other experts believe that users prone to relapsing may not have done the “inner healing work,” so they didn’t get to the underlying issues that contributed to their alcoholism. Perhaps they’ve never dealt with childhood trauma or a painful divorce.  Therefore, relapses could indicate their lack of commitment to working through the roots of their addictive behavior.

Some people get overconfident in their sobriety. They believe they’ve mastered their addiction. Therefore, they start slacking in their recovery work, thinking there’s no way they’d relapse. This mindset can cause some people to start reverting back to old thoughts or patterns. For instance, they rationalize that their recovery is strong enough that they can start going to bars again.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget how insidious substance abuse can be.

Self-pity caused by a victim mentality can also cause an individual to relapse. Thoughts such as “poor me” and “I’m not good enough” can keep people from moving forward. Ultimately, these people may relapse because they justify their faulty or irrational beliefs about themselves.


What are the warning signs that you’re headed for a relapse?  How can you see these red flags as they present themselves?

Here are some of the top warning signs that you’re headed for a relapse

  • If you’re struggling with bouts of anxiety and higher stress levels, you’ll be more likely to reach for a drink that will calm your nerves.
  • If you’ve recently quit drinking, you may start experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking, restlessness, agitation, accelerated heart rate, and increased perspiration. So you may reach for a drink to reduce these symptoms.
  • People who struggle with feelings of sadness or depression usually long to feel happy. Since they associate drinking with parties and happy feelings, they may relapse in an attempt to feel something other than dissatisfaction.
  • If someone doesn’t have a strong support system, they could feel lonely and isolated, which could cause them to relapse.


If you’ve relapsed on alcohol or another drug, the first thing you should do is refrain from beating yourself up.  You don’t want to take it lightly, but you also don’t want to judge yourself so harshly that you end up thinking, “Well, I’m such a failure that I might as well just keep drinking.”

Don’t self-criticize or stay down in the dumps. Instead, get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the road to recovery. Relapsing doesn’t mean you failed. It’s a slip, and there’s an opportunity to learn valuable lessons that could prevent you from slipping again.

If you’ve relapsed, another helpful thing you can do is reach out for support from your family members, friends, and other people in recovery.  It’s alright to admit that you slipped. By becoming accountable to another person, you take full responsibility for the relapse. You also open the door to encouragement that will get you back on the road to recovery.

In the future, it will help you to pinpoint why you relapsed.  What triggered you? Did you allow too much stress to build up? Did you think you were strong enough to go to a bar? Did you feel guilty about lying about something?  Do your best to figure out what triggered you, then address it. This tactic might help you prevent a relapse the next time you find yourself in the same situation.

Some people find that attending a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery helps them get back on the road to recovery.  To strengthen your recovery muscles, you may want to attend one meeting a day.

A therapist could help you sort out underlying issues in your life.  Seeing a counselor for a series of sessions may help you pinpoint why you relapsed, and it could help you prevent relapsing in the future. You can also address things like anxiety, stress, depression, relationship problems, and career issues.

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Some people may need to attend a treatment center after a relapse or a series of relapses.  For example, someone who’s been heavily drinking for years may find himself relapsing over and over during his first few months of recovery.  He just can’t seem to resist the cravings to drink. He gets flustered because there are so many responsibilities in his life. So when conflict arise, he doesn’t know how to cope with them without drinking.  Despite his attendance at AA, he’s still relapsing.

For this kind of person, attending an inpatient or outpatient alcohol treatment center would be a great option. He would be able to really dive into recovery surrounded by substance abuse professionals. They can help him learn about the disease of alcoholism and discover skills that will help him abstain from drinking. 

He will be able to see a therapist to learn coping skills, conflict-resolution skills, relapse prevention skills, and tactics for dealing with emotional issues.

Even if someone has already attended an alcohol treatment center, it’s alright to go back to treatment if relapsing has become an issue.  Multiple treatment stays are not signs of weakness.  Since change is a process, it takes time. It’s a continuum.

You may be further along on the continuum, but you still have a way to go before you’re able to abstain from drinking.  The reality is that it sometimes just takes numerous attempts to fully commit to staying away from alcohol. And that’s alright.

Relapsing can occur, but you don’t have to let it keep you from getting back on the road of recovery.

These professionals are available around the clock to help you navigate your treatment options, verify your insurance, and answer any questions you might have.


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from

Verywell Mind. (2020, July 10) "How to Stay Sober: 12 Tips for Your Recovery." T. Buddy Retrieved from

Psychology Today. Relaspse. What is Relapse? Retrieved from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Alert. Retrieved from

Mayo Clinic (August 2020). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). from




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