If addiction recovery is one of the most difficult things a person can go through, then addiction relapse is one of the most devastating. A person in recovery has already caused damage to his life and likely to the lives of those closest to him. When you combine that with the cost of some rehabilitation centers and the toll it takes on everyone around the person in recovery, it’s understandable that friends, family members, coworkers and the addicted individual himself will be frustrated and disappointed following an addiction relapse. But it’s important to remember that relapse does not equal failure, and many consider it a necessary part of recovery.

Most People in Recovery Will Relapse Within the First Year

Addiction recovery is not a short-term process – it’s a lifetime commitment. Much like a person who manages diabetes, asthma or any other chronic condition, there will be steps forward and steps backward – good days and bad ones. The key is to remain dedicated to the long-term goal of keeping the illness under control. If a person with diabetes has a bad day and ends up with his or her blood sugar too high or too low, the answer is not to give up. Instead, the answer is to keep on trying to apply the treatment education and practices learned. The same principal applies in addiction recovery.

The fact is that the first year following rehab is the most difficult, and fewer than 20% of individuals in recovery will remain sober for a year. However, as individuals in recovery remain abstinent for longer periods of time, their long-term addiction relapse rates decline significantly. The following graph illustrates the positive impact that length of abstinence from drugs and alcohol has on the long-term prospects for addiction relapse into substance abuse:[1],[2]
bar graph illustrating the how the chance of addiction relapse declines as the length of substance abuse abstinence increases
As the statistics show, getting through the first year of recovery is one of the keys to long-lasting success, but it’s also very difficult. People in recovery for drugs or alcohol often have mental health disabilities and environmental factors that they must learn to overcome. Additionally, the chronic nature of addiction means that the condition is never cured and that addiction relapse is always a possibility.

Why Do People Relapse?

Very few relapses happen on purpose. No one spends one-to-three months of their life away from friends and family members, attempting to achieve sobriety, only to turn around and throw it all away on a whim. So why do so many people who have committed time, money and energy toward their rehab end up relapsing?

Here Are Some Common Reasons Why Relapse Occurs:[3],[4]

  • The transition from a controlled, drug- and alcohol-free environment to the regular world proves too difficult.
  • The person in recovery can’t separate himself from friends and family members who continue to use and abuse drugs and/or alcohol.
  • The individual struggles with feelings of boredom, depression, isolation and/or anxiety.
  • A stressful situation leads the individual in recovery to seek relief through substance abuse.
  • A big event or celebration (Christmas party, Superbowl Sunday) includes a lot of heavy drinking and causes the addicted individual to partake.
  • Revisiting old hangouts that are associated with prior substance abuse.
  • Symptoms of mental illness become too difficult to bear, and the addicted individual attempts to self-medicate.

photo of a group of four cheering people watching a sporting event on television with beer bottles in their hands
What these reasons tell us is that the support system surrounding a person in recovery goes a long way in determining long-term success. If those who are closest can’t help to create an environment that is conducive to recovery, the process will be extremely difficult. The individual must also work to remove him or herself from potentially dangerous situations and to apply all of the strategies learned during rehab in the outside world.

How to Avoid Addiction Relapse

A person in recovery should be making sobriety a high priority, especially in the first few months following treatment. This is the most vulnerable time for patients, so it’s the time where men and women struggling with addiction, as well as their families, must be careful and responsible. It’s important to understand that completing rehab is only the beginning of the journey through recovery, not the end.

Relapse Prevention Strategies:[5]

  • Clear the home of drugs and alcohol
  • Avoid situations where drugs and/or alcohol may be present
  • Understand the cues and thinking patterns that have led to substance abuse in the past
  • Attend 12-step meetings and other addiction aftercare services
  • Surround yourself with only positive influences
  • Pursue new hobbies and interests
  • Exercise regularly and eat healthy
  • Don’t get complacent
  • Learn to say no

photo of a group of happy young people posing for a photo in front of a stand of trees
Even if you take every step possible to avoid an addiction relapse, there’s still a chance that it may happen – and that’s okay as long as you get back on the horse. When you have a relapse, there are two choices. The first is to immediately stop the substance abuse and get back on track; the second is to assume your rehab was a failure, give up and fall back into addiction. The decision is obvious.

Rather than being looked at as a disaster, a relapse should be seen as an opportunity to make changes. It gives you a chance to reevaluate your priorities, attempt to create new habits and assess what went wrong and how it can be improved. The most important thing is to not let a slip up turn into a full-blown relapse.

Relapse Prevention Begins with Choosing the Right Rehab Program

The point of addiction recovery is not only to detox and be drug or alcohol-free for a few months, but also to prepare you for success during and after rehab. What good is a recovery program that doesn’t put you in the best position to succeed once you leave its protective environment?

In order to understand how to prevent relapse, you must first understand why you choose to abuse drugs and/or alcohol. For many, it involves family history, a toxic relationship with mental health difficulties, trauma, stress or physical pain. Once this is understood, new and healthier coping techniques must be created, implemented and constantly improved upon. Few addiction recovery facilities are better prepared to help with this than Unity Behavioral Health.

From the moment you or a loved one walks through our doors, we act as your caring, compassionate and knowledgeable guides throughout the journey to recovery. This includes mental health assessments and treatments, life-skills training, nutritional counseling and lifetime aftercare services, among many other programs and therapies. If you’re ready to take the first step in asking for help, we’re ready to take the next step in inviting you into our treatment center to begin the road to sobriety. Contact us today at 877-772-5505 to learn more.


  1. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17986709
  2. emedicine.medscape.com/article/285913-followup
  3. www.everydayhealth.com/addiction/understanding-addiction-relapse.aspx
  4. pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh23-2/151-160.pdf

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