According to studies, 40 to 60% of addicts relapse within a month of leaving a rehabilitation center, and up to 85% relapse within the first year.
The million-dollar question is this: why? Why do addicts relapse when things are good, despite them knowing the repercussions of going back to their poison of choice?
More importantly, why does it happen so often?
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Relapse: Part of the Process, or a Choice?
One of the biggest misconceptions of addiction is that it’s a result of a lack of willpower and that if someone was “strong enough,” the chances of relapsing would fall to zero. This isn’t true.
Individuals suffering from addiction aren’t compromised in willpower or lacking in self-discipline. It isn’t something that goes away out of sheer motivation. It’s a chronic disease, meaning it requires ongoing, active treatment and commitment to recovery.
In this way, it’s similar to other chronic diseases such as hypertension and Type I diabetes, with shockingly comparable relapse rates.
When a person is suffering from addiction, it’s important to recognize that addiction is a disease, not a choice. While it’s true that people choose to use drugs/mind-altering substances, they don’t control how their brains and body react to the ingredients in said substances.
Addiction prevents people from having control over their cravings and behaviors, which is why many fall victim to relapsing.
Another misconception about addiction is that relapsing is a part of the process. While increasingly common, it doesn’t have to be a part of the recovery process.
There are dozens of biological and environmental factors that increase the chances of relapse. Because of this, most relapse prevention plans involve managing or avoiding these risk factors.
Common Factors that Contribute to Addiction Relapse
When a patient relapses, it’s often because they’re exposed to places, people, or emotions that trigger the uncontrollable desire for drugs or alcohol. These triggers cause intense and adamant cravings, making them feel like they need their addiction to cope.
Most people experience withdrawal days after they stop using the substance they’re addicted to. Symptoms vary in type and severity depending on the substance used, the frequency of use, the quantity of use, and the duration of use
As a person becomes physically dependent on drugs, their body gradually adapts to the presence of the substance in their system. When they stop using drugs after long-term use, they can become violently ill as their body tries to cope with the absence of drugs.
Symptoms may include:
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle aches and cramps
- Increased blood pressure
These symptoms can last anywhere from days to weeks. In cases of severe addiction, one might be swayed to relapse if only to relieve themselves from these symptoms.
Mental Health Issues
Many people revert to their addiction as a way to cope with difficult emotions or thoughts. These emotions are often caused by mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and others.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists drug abuse and drug dependence as mental disorders. However, many people who regularly abuse drugs are also diagnosed with mental disorders. In this way, addiction can be considered a catalyst for mental disorders.
People who depend on substances as a coping mechanism for their mental health issues have a higher chance of relapsing. To overcome substance abuse and mental health disorders, dual diagnosis treatment is mandatory. A relapse may be unavoidable if such treatment isn’t given or is unavailable.
Often, people relapse because of the people they introduce or bring back into their lives.
Being around people who regularly engage in substance abuse may make the patient feel as though they need to use/drink to belong.
Social triggers are one of the most powerful triggers of relapse, which is why it’s imperative that a recovering patient set healthy boundaries with family, friends, and colleagues who don’t respect their sobriety.
The key to a successful recovery is to surround oneself with people who actively support their goals.
Environmental triggers go hand-in-hand with social triggers.
Even with a solid support system, a relapse is possible if the patient frequently visits liquor stores, bars, strip clubs, casinos, and other places where substances, illegal or otherwise, can be easily accessed.
Therefore, the patient must strive to avoid places associated with drug or alcohol use to shield them from the temptation of using.
Lack of Self-Care
Self-care is a crucial part of addiction recovery. Without self-care, the patient is more susceptible to relapsing. The patient may not deem themselves “worthy” of living a happy, fulfilling life, so they’d revert to a life of addiction.
Self-care isn’t just about going on a vacation or getting a massage. It’s nurturing both physical and mental health on a daily basis so you can feel your best. Feeling your best is important when you’re in recovery, as it gives you a reason to stay on your recovery path.
Lack of Motivation
Outside controlled environments like rehabilitation centers and substance abuse treatment programs, recovering addicts may lose sight of the importance of living an addiction-free life. They’d finish the program as instructed but fall back into old habits as soon as they leave the facility.
When people lose motivation in recovery, they’ll stop going to meetings, stop hanging out with friends, or stop going to their jobs. This lack of motivation leads to dissatisfaction which can then become an excuse to relapse.
Recovery is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful process, so we can’t fault patients for wanting to take the easy route of relapsing.
Nevertheless, patients need to understand the importance of keeping busy and filling days with positive, healthy activities. That’s why treatment isn’t only about stopping the use of drugs, but also about establishing a routine involving therapy, exercise, meal preparation, self-care, and mindfulness.
Addicts relapse because of multiple factors, including withdrawal, mental health issues, lack of self-care, and lack of motivation.
If you or someone you love is in the process of recovering from addiction, don’t view relapse as a sign of failure. As disappointing as it may be, there’s always a chance of getting back on the right track with the help of a solid support system.