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Relapse: Common causes and prevention techniques

By Tim Woodley

For any person recovered from addiction to drugs and alcohol, sober life is something lived in the knowledge that relapsing is always possible. This has nothing to do with a lack of willpower or commitment; the simple fact is that the urge to relapse and return to problematic drug and alcohol use will always be present. 

The risk of relapse exists at all stages of recovery, making the development of prevention techniques a vital and ongoing part of a sober life. In time, the urge to relapse will diminish, but will never disappear entirely. 


What are common causes of relapses? 

While stressors and triggers that can cause a relapse vary from person to person, there are common triggers that any person recovering from drug and alcohol abuse should be mindful of. 

Boredom: This is a particularly relevant threat to sobriety at present. As most of the country self-isolates to ‘flatten the curve’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, the abundance of time many of us find ourselves with leads to boredom. Without a routine, this can threaten sobriety.

Stress: For many, our income and financial stability is a serious concern in the months ahead. This is a leading cause of stress at the best of times and goes hand in hand with the heightened anxiety and concern many are feeling over the uncertainty of the future and the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. To minimise and avoid this stress, the temptation to turn to drug and alcohol misuse can be challenging to resist.

Sights and smells: It’s common for recovering and recovered individuals to be triggered by specific smells and sights. It’s important to be aware that these don’t have to directly relate to alcohol and drugs themselves; you may, for example, experience the urge to drink or do drugs when you hear the clink of glasses at a restaurant. For some, triggers can be even more benign on the surface, such as a certain smell or image which brings the mind back to a place where drugs and alcohol were consumed. 

A key learning point here is that your triggers are unique and will vary from those experienced by others. Knowing this, it’s important to be quick to identify the urge to do drugs or alcohol when they arise, and to think about your immediate environment and what might be acting as a trigger. Knowledge, as the old saying goes, is power. 


Relapse prevention techniques

Learning relapse prevention techniques and applying them to your life is the cornerstone of successful recovery. It’s something you’ll learn in-depth in any rehabilitation programme, such as our Digital Dayhab course we now provide remotely for clients unable to attend our London clinic. Here are several examples of effective techniques you may find helpful in achieving and maintaining sobriety.

HALT: This acronym has long been used successfully in the avoidance of relapse into drug and alcohol use. Standing for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired, it simply acts as a quick and immediate way to appraise how you feel and your environment when the urge to drink and do drugs arises. If you feel an urge arising in you, think about each point of HALT – if one rings true, you can focus on that feeling and act to avoid it.

Self-care: Important now more than ever, consistent self-care and affection are vital to avoiding relapse. Whether self-isolating or not, maintaining a consistent routine of self-care and hygiene is one of the vital foundations of recovery from drug and alcohol misuse. 

Meditation: Mindfulness meditation has been found to make a marked difference in the likelihood of successful recovery from drugs and alcohol in many studies on addiction. Individuals who practice meditation regularly remain on average clean and sober longer than those who don’t. For most practitioners, simple breathing meditation helps them to ‘sit’ with their present feelings and urges in a way that makes them tolerable and allows them to pass. 

Grounding: Grounding techniques are simple and effective in helping to resist the urge to do drugs and alcohol. A common method is often referred to as the 5-4-3-2-1 method, wherein you go through the following checklist when you feel the urge to relapse rising within you.

  • Observe five things you can see immediately around you
  • Observe four items you can touch in your vicinity
  • Observe three things you can hear in the area around you
  • Observe two things you can smell
  • Observe one thing you can taste 

This checklist of focus helps you to be more mindful and is proven to be relaxing and comforting whenever you are experiencing stress and anxiety.


We hope we’ve helped

We face a challenging year ahead. Achieving and maintaining sobriety in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic will require focus and dedication, but it is possible. If you’re concerned about your drug and alcohol use and would like an informal chat with a member of our team, we’re always available and happy to do so at no obligation. 

You can reach us at 0208 191 8920 or you can message us using our contact form.

If you’d like to learn more about our new Digital Dayhab service, you can do so on this page of our website. 

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