How Do We Avoid Relapse in Recovery?


Relapse is the term used most commonly to describe the regression of a person’s stage of treatment. It is when someone has been clean or sober from drugs or alcohol, and then falls back into old habits and begins using or drinking again. What makes relapse so dangerous is the fact that it can undo weeks, months, or possibly even years of work. This is what makes therapy so important because it helps people learn how to prevent relapse by avoiding and resisting potential triggers.

According to Jef Gazely, a licensed therapist with several specialties, “the way that I think of relapse is one of two things: either your diagnosis sucked… or the plan sucked.” Perhaps the diagnosis didn’t show things to be as severe as they were, which could have led to a poor plan. As we’ve seen numerous times in this series, addiction takes hold of the mind and bends it to the will of the substance. The substance takes all priorities, and leaves the person incapable of choosing not to use or drink. Because of this incredibly important factor, therapists will often prescribe a plan for their clients to follow in order to resist relapse.

If the plan is based off of a poor diagnosis, or if the plan itself simply doesn’t address possible triggers. -then what? You started it with an if and no then to finish the thought.

Triggers: What Are They?

A trigger, in terms of psychology, is something that sets off memories, taking someone’s sense back in time, almost, to a point of sadness, happiness, pain, or habit. A trigger isn’t always a bad thing; the smell of an apple pie could remind someone of home; a whiff of perfume could take you back to a relationship, or remind you of a significant other or family member. In terms of addiction, however, a trigger is what threatens a person’s recovery. It can be anything from a seeing a familiar drinking buddy, being at a familiar bar, experiencing a familiar emotion that sent the person toward the substance in the first place.

Literally anything can act as a trigger and send an addict spiraling out of recovery and into relapse. Gazely even offers his own experience with smoking. He tells the story of story of how he was getting his boots shined while sitting in a large leather chair with an ash tray in it, and then immediately went and bought a pack of cigarettes. The chairs reminded him of when he and his father would get their hair cut in similar chairs, and everyone around them would smoke.

“So the back part of my brain went ahead and hit that, and I went ahead and smoked… it was a deep memory that, without pertinent classical conditioning, it was tagged and I needed it.” Gazely’s example is a perfect image of what a trigger does. Without even thinking, he was drawn to a familiar experience with his father and went straight for a smoke.

How Do We Avoid Relapse?

“Part of every relapse plan should have training in Emotional Freedom Techniques,” says Gazely. Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT for short, are a form of alternative medicine that are sometimes used in addiction counseling. These draw on many different theories including acupuncture, meditations, and neuro-linguistic programming to create techniques for resisting urges. The term is somewhat controversial due to the “alternative” sources, but success has been shown in some areas. Meditation, or forms of it to include prayer, and still-thought, has shown to help remove urges from triggers that spring up. In the case of Gazely’s chair incident, there was no way he could have known he would be triggered by a leather chair.

“All it’s doing is hitting every meridian you have on your body, and that throws you into balance. So that calms you down, and you aren’t thinking of any desire.” EFT can help a person to resist these immediate urges that drop into our lives unexpectedly. Longer term, it is recommended that addicts recovering from addiction use therapy in order to help them stay on the road of recovery. Therapy can help an addict gain insight into their lives and their triggers and learn how to cope with reality in a productive, safe, and healthy manner.

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