Recognizing Signs of a Relapse & 10 Tips to Avoid One

Relapsing, AKA drinking again after quitting, is more than just picking up a bottle of booze and tilting it into your face.  Relapse is a process, not an event, and it’s one that could take weeks or even months before the act of actually drinking.  It’s very important to educate yourself on the subject of relapse even if you don’t think it could happen to you. Three stages of relapse are emotional, mental, then the physical occurrence of consumption. 

Want to hear me share what it’s like floating between stage 1 and 2 after a night out? Watch the video here.

Stage 1: Emotional

In this first stage, you’re not specifically thinking about drinking but your emotions and behaviours are setting you up for a relapse.  Your self-destructive side is starting to creep in again and you might notice your thoughts start to fall into old patterns of negativity. 

Other signs to look out for:

  • anxiety
  • defensiveness
  • mood swings
  • anger
  • isolation
  • not asking for help
  • poor eating habits
  • trouble sleeping
  • poor self-care
  • resentment or bitterness about having to give up your old life
  • jealousy towards friends who don’t have a drinking problem

It’s so important to find support when you’re feeling these ways because if you continue to allow your mind to wander in these negative directions you’ll become more and more exhausted and overwhelmed which will lead you straight into the next stage.  Quitting drinking is so much more than just stopping the act of consuming alcohol- you have to work on yourself and explore your thoughts in depth to heal.

Stage 2: Mental

In this stage, there’s basically a war going on in your head.  There’s a part of you that doesn’t want a drink, and the other part does.  You’re idly thinking about drinking and it’s torture!  Not getting help in this stage makes sobriety so much harder. 

Signs you’re in the “mental” stage:

  • thinking about places you used to drink
  • glamorizing your past use
  • fantasizing about your old life of drinking
  • hanging out with old drinking buddies
  • thinking about relapsing and planning a relapse
  • lying

A good technique to help you when you’re in your head- play out in your mind what would happen if you did decide to go out and drink.  Look at your past to help you predict what would happen if you drank again.  I’m willing to bet that halfway through your first drink that little voice in your head will tell you it’s ok to have just one more, it will tell you you’re not an alcoholic and that you can stop before you get too drunk.  Next thing you know, you’re blackout drunk eating donair at 4AM before passing out in your clothes and waking up at noon feeling like actual garbage with the familiar feeling of dread, guilt, and shame. with so much guilt and shame. Understand that your addiction will try to convince you that it’s ok to drink and that you don’t have a problem.  It takes time and effort to start to change those patterns of thinking and over time that voice gets quieter and quieter until you forget what it sounds like.  You also need to keep talking about your recovery to someone.  Tell your sponsor or counsellor what you’re thinking and feeling.

Stage 3- Physical relapse

If you don’t use some prevention techniques and you start thinking about drinking again it doesn’t take long to go from stage 2 to an actual relapse.  It’s almost impossible to stop yourself from driving to the liquor store as you’ve already been thinking about it for a while.  It’s so important to recognize and address your emotional and mental health before it gets to this point.

Tips to Help you Avoid a Relapse

  1. Avoid triggers– Going to parties and bars are obvious triggers but there are some other triggers you might not think of like the smell of beer, wearing a certain pair of shoes you own, smoking, or even seeing someone drink.  For me, it was hard to see someone on TV or in a movie drink because it forced my brain to then imagine what it tasted, smelled, and felt like and that was NOT GOOD.  To avoid this I simply looked away from the screen and it worked.
  2. Wait it out– Distract yourself when you do feel a craving coming on.  Do something that takes your mind off of it for 30 minutes and you’ll find that once the time has passed the craving loses intensity dramatically.
  3. Replace drinking with new activities– If you always had a beer when you got home from work replace that activity with something else.  Learn more about cooking, do yoga, go to the gym, anything.  Fill that time with something good rather than sitting there bored, staring at the wall because there’s a good chance you’ll eventually end up sitting there bored, staring at the wall with a drink in your hand.
  4. Don’t do it alone– Share your goals of sobriety with friends so they can hold you accountable and so you can have your own cheering section.  Support is HUGE.
  5. Don’t become complacent with sobriety– If you decide to have wine with dinner in the future don’t take that decision lightly.  If you’ve struggled in the past with drinking, you’ll probably struggle in the future.  There’s a really good chance that once you go “back out” (i.e., start drinking again) you’ll end up right back where you ended things and it can get out of hand quicker than you realize.
  6. Have a plan when things get bad– Life happens- you might lose a job, end a relationship, lose a loved one, move and meet new people.  Surround yourself with sober people and supportive friends to help you get through the hard times.  Trust me when I say that being sober through the hard times really makes things easier.  For yourself and everyone around you.
  7. Know you’ll have to make sacrifices– Quitting drinking was hard for me in many ways, but one particularly sad part was that I had to stop going to live shows.  That was huge for me because I had so many friends in bands and virtually everyone I spent time with also went to shows and hung out with everyone else I knew!  But I knew that if I continued to go to the same places and see the same people that I’d end up drinking again.  Live music and being in a beer-filled bar was just too overwhelming so I had to give it up.  At least for the first year- I was able to occasionally (I mean like once a year) see a show only if it was a really good one.  Make your sobriety your priority- because without it, you have nothing.
  8. Take it one day at a time– or one min at a time. Don’t think about whether you can abstain from alcohol forever- that’s paralyzing and too overwhelming. Think of it in chunks like “I won’t drink for the rest of the day” or “I’m not going to drink this weekend” then just keep going.
  9. Create new rituals for special occasions– For me, my birthday, Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and my best friends’ birthdays were the absolute hardest to participate in when I first got sober because I always associated those events with getting really drunk.  Because I believed that drunk=fun.  NOT TRUE.  Find new ways to celebrate or you’ll find yourself depressed scrolling through photos of New Year’s Eve parties on Facebook. 
  10. If you relapse, don’t give up– Yes, you’re starting back at day 0 but on the inside, you’re not starting at day 0.  You’ve gained confidence, knowledge, and experience so once you quit again there’s a better chance it’ll stick. 

Relapse is disappointing and daunting, but it doesn’t mean that you failed as what you decide immediately following a relapse is what matters most.  Reach out to professionals, surround yourself with positive influences, practice self-care, and go easy on yourself.  You can get through it and you can become even stronger despite the slip. 

If you’re in early recovery stay strong, fight through it, remember that you can do it, and know that you’re worth it.   

I was 1 month sober and struggling between the first and second stage. Thankfully I had support and didn’t relapse!


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