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Alcohol Relapse – Symptoms, Triggers, And Prevention

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Among all substance use disorders, alcohol addiction is the most common. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, an estimated 15 million American adults struggled with alcohol addiction in 2015. Luckily, there are several treatment options available for people looking to overcome an alcohol use disorder.

A treatment program will help a person get sober and equip him or her with the tools needed to maintain sobriety. Alcohol use disorder is a lifelong disease, which means that someone with this condition will need to continue to take measures to stay sober. However, even when vigilant, many individuals will experience relapse after a period of sobriety.

An alcohol relapse can be dangerous, especially if a person’s alcohol use disorder was severe before sobriety. Despite this, a relapse should not discourage someone from getting back on track with recovery. In fact, many schools of thought consider relapses a normal part of the process for people recovering from alcoholism.

Understanding relapse and the symptoms and triggers that may precede a relapse is important for people recovering from an alcohol use disorder. Let’s look at the common symptoms and possible triggers of an alcoholic relapse.

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What Is An Alcohol Relapse?

In the simplest terms, an alcohol relapse is when someone returns to drinking after a period of sobriety. Because of the chronic nature of the disease of addiction, relapse is an unfortunately common part of alcohol use disorder recovery.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that roughly 90 percent of people who receive treatment will relapse within four years. There is currently no single method of treatment that is guaranteed to prevent relapse.

While these statistics are certainly sobering, relapse rates vary significantly and each person is different. One individual may find lasting success after attending a treatment program only once, whereas someone else may require multiple treatment attempts before sobriety is maintained.

While a relapse can often bring with it feelings of shame and guilt, it’s important to keep in mind that relapse is often believed to be just another part of the recovery process. However, there are certain steps a person can take to be aware of and prevent a possible relapse.

Symptoms Of An Alcohol Relapse

A relapse typically doesn’t happen overnight, especially for someone who has been sober for an extended period of time. An alcohol relapse is generally believed to happen in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. The first two steps signify the progression towards an actual relapse, while the last stage is the actual participation in drinking alcohol.

Stage One: Emotional Relapse

An emotional relapse is when a person’s emotions and behaviors begin to steer him or her away from recovery. He or she may not be actually thinking about or planning to drink during this stage.

Common signs of an emotional relapse include:

  • isolation
  • mood swings
  • not going to as many 12-step meetings
  • anxiety
  • defensiveness
  • not asking for help
  • poor eating and sleeping habits

Stage Two: Mental Relapse

A mental relapse is the next stage of an alcohol relapse and is when a person begins to experience cravings for alcohol. Someone may initially think about using alcohol idly and, if the situation is not addressed, may progress to actually planning to drink.

Symptoms of a mental relapse may include:

  • glamorizing past alcohol use
  • hanging out with people you used to drink with
  • fantasizing about drinking alcohol
  • planning out a relapse
  • lying
  • experiencing cravings

Stage Three: Physical Relapse

If nothing is done to combat the emotional and mental relapse stages, a person will likely progress on to the physical relapse stage. A physical relapse is when a person actually participates in drinking.

Alcohol Relapse Triggers

Alcohol relapses are related to changes in the brain that take place when a person becomes addicted to alcohol. These changes make it difficult to quit drinking and even harder to stay sober for an extended period of time.

While everybody is different, there are a few triggers that seem to be most common among people who have relapsed.

These triggers include:

  • withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal symptoms
  • certain people, places, and things associated with previous alcohol use
  • lack of self-care practices
  • relationships
  • sex
  • certain emotions and feelings, such as being angry or lonely
  • isolating
  • stressful life situations

Other factors can increase a person’s risk of relapse. For example, quitting or refusing to go to support groups like Alcoholic’s Anonymous can set a person up for a relapse. Additionally, feeling overconfident in one’s sobriety or believing that the problem has been kicked can also lead to relapse.

Alcohol Relapse Prevention

The sooner a person takes action to prevent a possible relapse, the more successful he or she will be at staying sober. Early relapse prevention often entails becoming aware of dangerous emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and working to change these.

Another way to prevent alcohol relapse is to participate in aftercare recovery groups such as 12-step meetings. Support groups provide a safe place to share how a person is feeling and to discuss triggers and difficult emotions with other people. Groups like AA also give people a place to connect with other individuals who are experiencing the same things.

Asking for help is another step a person can take to prevent a relapse. Reaching out to a sponsor or other trusted individual and talking about urges or cravings can help dispel them.

Other techniques to prevent relapse include practicing regular self-care, participating in relapse prevention programs, and focusing on one day at a time. The more relapse prevention activities a person participates in, the more likely it is that he or she will remain sober.

Getting Treatment After An Alcohol Relapse

Relapsing after a period of sobriety can be incredibly discouraging. However, it’s important to remember that relapse is more often than not just another part of the recovery process. If you or a loved one has relapsed on alcohol, an alcoholism detox treatment program may be beneficial.

For less severe instances of relapse, outpatient treatment or addiction therapy may be recommended. These are less intensive forms of addiction treatment that can help someone get back on track to recovery from an alcohol use disorder.

If a relapse is more severe and a person has been abusing alcohol again for an extended period of time, inpatient treatment is likely the best option. Residential programs are more intensive and allow patients to focus solely on getting and staying sober.

To learn more about the symptoms, triggers, and prevention of an alcohol relapse, contact a treatment specialist today.