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Relapse Meaning


Relapse meaning: the act or an instance of backsliding, worsening, or subsiding.

In the instance of substance use disorder, a recurrence of symptoms of the disease (drug use) after a period of improvement (sobriety), means that the patient has relapsed. Often during partial recovery, a drug addict will turn back to bad habits. After a period of apparent improvement, a drug addict will fall back into a former state of drug use.

The causes vary, but often times it is because a person feels sick from withdrawal symptoms. When a person is to relapse after a period being sober, overdose is always a main concern. When a drug addict is no longer using, their tolerance levels go down. This puts a person at higher risk of death from an overdose, as many former addicts return to bad habits by doing the same amount of the drug as before they were sober.

Although most relapses occur during partial recovery, sudden relapse is known to occur after a former addict has been sober for many years. When someone is to relapse years after being sober, feelings of failure and disappointment often worsen their relapse.

Long term treatment options for drug or alcohol abuse, such as group meetings, are vital to prevent relapse at any stage of recovery.

What is Relapse?

Relapse definition: to slip or fall back into a former worse state.

Whenever someone completely stops drinking and is sober for two years, if he/she gets drunk this illustrates the person has relapsed. Another example, is when cancer is cured but returns one year later. Simply stated it is the return or worsening of a medical condition, especially if that condition had apparent improvement.

A relapse in addiction is when the person with the former condition falls back into a former addict again after a time of abstinence of substance use.

For a person with a history of substance use the recurrence of behavioral or other indicators of active disease, after a time of remission, such as the return of the original infection or illness, indicated that person has relapsed.

For people trying to make a change to control themselves, instead of trying to quit entirely, a relapse happens when the individual had gotten into good practice over the bad behavior but will backslide and return to a time of uncontrollable use of drugs.

Drug Relapse


Many factors can cause someone to fall back into a former state of drug abuse. Many people have difficulty overcoming dependency and addiction disorder. There may also be causes of stress and emotional distress in the workplace and social or economic problems including financial distress, rejection of social services, and difficulty in personal relations that have accompanied the condition as a cause.

Similar to drug dependent behaviors, the recovery from relapse is as personal as the relapse itself. When a person suffered and has relapsed, it is not indicating a person's weakness but merely an extension of the old patterns of wrongdoing and recurrence. Unfortunately relapse is usually a part of the addiction cycle. Often an alcoholic or drug user will return to a former state of substance use, and it will take several attempts to maintain sobriety.

You Can Make A Difference

Over 100,000 people died in 2021 from drug overdoses in the United States.

Partial Recovery


Recovering from alcohol or drugs requires time. A relapse (or multiple relapses) are a part of the recovering process from alcohol or drug dependence, which are usually an aspect of the recovery. Relapse occurs in people whose goals of reducing or eliminating drinking, or drug use have ceased and they return or revert to the previous state in which they had used it. This is usually a temporary slip, as the patient is able to withdraw relapsing and return to the initial goal.

No matter how diligently you pursue your recovery success or how committed you are to lifelong sobriety, no matter how many changes or how much improvement you make, there is a chance of relapsing at some point, with the severity depending on the health of the person and the length of the disease. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, says relapse rates while in recovery are 40 to 60%. Opiates have the highest rates of relapse than any other drug. After patients slip and fall back into bad ways of using a drug or alcohol, many people experience feelings of shame, guilt or regret.

Sudden Relapse


Although often called sudden relapse, subtle changes in the way someone is acting often precedes a relapse. There may be signs such as isolation, mood swings, and avoiding one's sober support network. A person who is about to backslide into using will act differently and may abandon hobbies and interests. For people in recovery, a relapse means the sudden return to drinking or drug use after period of not using. Although relapse may be heartbreaking for the person in recovery, (leaving them in a worse state mentally), as well as for their family and friends, many recovered alcoholics and drug-users relapse, and it is not necessarily a sign of failure.

Overdose Risk During Relapse

The more often a person is using drugs, the greater the amount is needed to achieve the same effect. In some cases, the user can stop using this drug for some time to improve their tolerance. After a return to an act or an instance of using, most addicts take the usual amount of a drug as before, and this could result in an overdose. Overdoses due to changed tolerances can lead to the death of those who do not use drugs for longer periods or suffer a recurrence after being sober. This is seen often in incarcerated persons, or in persons after detoxication or rehabilitation programs.

Are Relapses Common?

Unfortunately patients in recovery often suffer relapse. They slip and fall back into a cycle of use that is a hallmark of addiction. Relapsing is common, and even expected in people who are attempting to overcome addiction. Many people will go through one or even several relapses before successfully quitting and maintaining life long sobriety. Relapse is even considered a stage in the recovery process. The alcoholic or addict will cycle through a process of avoiding quitting, considering quitting, taking active steps to quit, and then relapsing. Many addicts and alcoholics return to drinking or using as they recover.

Is Relapse a Sign of Failure?

Despite the fact that relapse is a well-recognized aspect of recovery from an addiction, many people attempting to quit feel they have failed when they relapse. The patients might even abandon their efforts, feeling that quitting is too difficult for them. Accepting that relapse is a normal part of recovery is a helpful way of looking at relapse. People and programs that realize this are more successful, and in the long run, those patients who work to try again after a relapse are likely to eventually overcome their addiction.

Do not let the stigma of addiction impede your recovery.

Preventing Relapse

Long-term treatment options to treat addictions are designed to prevent relapse. The following techniques reduce the risk of relapse when using alcohol or drugs:

  • Physical Exercise: Exercise can help alleviate boredom and relieve stress. Any form of exercise whether it's yoga, walking, or good old fashion weight training will help to keep you calm, interact with others and stay focused on your goal.

  • Balanced Diet: Food is an important, and often overlooked part of recovery. When a person damages their body through years of drinking or drug use, they often have not been eating properly. Use this opportunity to feed your body the proper nutrition that it needs and heal from the inside. Besides you will need a balanced diet to fuel your new found hobbies of exercising.

  • Proper Sleep: Maintain proper sleep habits. When the body is well rested, chances are your mind will also be more rested. Not getting enough sleep can lead to irritability, anxiety, mood swings and overall sluggish feeling. Those are the worse kind of conditions and can easily trigger relapse.

Causes of Relapse

A variety of situations can lead to relapse. These vary depending on the health of the person, length of the illness and social setting of the patients. Having good management strategies will take much effort and the long term goal will require achieving the desired level of drug or alcohol use. Often times the causes are from withdrawal symptoms, a person will fell ill from non use of medication and fall back into old ways in order not to feel sick.

What to do When a Person you Know Relapses?

Relapse management is essential for a successful and long-term addiction recovery strategy. Solutions include immediate as well as long-term behavior change. Words of encouragement from loved ones can help let the person know they are not alone and that they have not failed. Encourage them to keep going, and tell them it is alright if they stumble and fall along the way. Let them know that they have not failed!

How to Deal With a Relapse

A relapse, although expected, should still be taken seriously. Good treatment programs plan ahead for the possibility by including relapse prevention as part of the process. This approach helps people in recovery anticipate what factors cause them to engage in their addictive behavior again.

  • Lifestyle changes: as already discussed, habits that enhance recovery and prevent relapse, including regular sleep, exercise, and relaxation techniques.

  • Coping skills: to help people cope with drug or alcohol urges as well as potential high-risk situations.

  • Cognitive therapy: to help people relearn how they think about relapse. This way they can view it as a learning opportunity rather than personal flaw or failure.

Thinking through what led to the relapse is an important step in avoiding it from happening again. For example, what were the triggers that happened before the relapse occurred? It is important to remain focused on recovery immediately after a relapse and reach out to your support group.

Sometimes, sad or emotional events can trigger a relapse, particularly if the addictive substance was used as a coping mechanism. But celebration events can also trigger a relapse, BBQ's, weddings, or parties may cause relapse especially if alcohol is present.


Remember, if you are trying to stop using a substance, you should plan and try to avoid relapse. But remember that if you do in fact relapse, you should accept that it is a normal part of the recovery process. One of the goals of treatment programs is to help people understand the signs of relapse. Understanding the signs during the early stages of treatment increase the chances of a successful recovery.

Remember you are not alone and recovery is possible!


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

National Institute of Mental Health

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse

National Institute on Drug Abuse