Relapse is officially defined as a deterioration in health after a period of improvement or a general return to a worse state of being. In terms of addiction, relapse is used to refer to any time a person falls back into a pattern of substance abuse after a substantial effort was made to stop. Many people with addiction disorders relapse at least once after quitting. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40-60 percent of individuals suffering from addiction relapse.

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is considered to be a mental illness or disease that requires treatment. However, relapse does not mean that treatment has failed or that the relapsed individual is doomed to a life of substance abuse. Because relapse is so common, it’s often thought of as little more than a small step back or speed bump on the road to recovery.

Despite these facts, many people suffering from addiction disorders are discouraged by incidents of relapse and may feel like failures. In reality, there’s likely something that has triggered the relapse and a little additional treatment and/or support is all that is needed to get them back on track.

Common Relapse Triggers


 There is a wide range of possible relapse triggers depending on multiple factors, such as the nature of the substance, the person’s life situation, and the person’s commitment to treatment. Often, triggers are simpler than one would think, or in some instances, they may be entirely unexpected.

There are many other more specific triggers that could be listed, but these tend to be the most common across all the different types of addiction to various substances (or behaviors/activities).

What Next?

stressed man

Again, a relapse is not the end of the world. However, many wonder what’s to be done after a relapse has occurred. Does the initial addiction treatment need to be repeated? Are there other, less intense options?

Much of the time, a relapse indicates a need for an adjustment in the treatment plan. After all, the longer an individual with an addiction disorder remains sober, the less likely it is that a relapse will occur. A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that of individuals who have been sober for less than a year, fewer than one-third will remain that way. However, those who stay clean for five years or more have only a 15 percent chance of relapsing.

The best course of action depends on the individual and how severe the relapse is. Having a couple drinks one night is not as serious as disappearing to go on a week-long bender. A minor relapse in an individual who is still committed to their treatment plan might simply require a visit to an addiction specialist, therapist, or primary care doctor the person has been working with, to examine the relapse incident and determine whether an adjustment in treatment is needed. If the relapse lasted for an extended period of time, a return to a structured rehabilitation plan may be necessary, especially since the person will likely once again go through withdrawal.

Substance abuse relapse can be thought of as any other kind of medical relapse. The individual’s treatment simply needs to be adjusted and possibly made more aggressive for a time until the person returns to better health. A new round of therapy may be prescribed to deal with new life stressors, and medication may be prescribed temporarily until the risk of further relapse has diminished. For many individuals, outpatient addiction treatment is a great middle-of-the-road option to get them back on track.

Outpatient treatment, as opposed to inpatient treatment, allows people in the program to stay in their own homes and generally move about freely during the program rather than being confined to a treatment facility. Clients are expected to check in for appointments at the hospital or treatment center multiple times per week. This may involve urine tests to check for substance use, individual or group therapy, and/or support group meetings. The treatment is quite active, but not as immersive as inpatient treatment. Clients are able to pretty much go on with their everyday lives as normal.

The best thing one can do following a relapse is simply reach out to others for support. Feeling that one is supported and cared for may be all that is needed to get back on the road to recovery.