family member supports an alcoholic after relapse

What to Do When an Alcoholic Relapses

When an alcoholic relapses, family members, friends, and loved ones are often taken aback. They could feel confused—or even betrayed—as they’ve already seen their loved one doing well, and now they are back where they started before treatment. However, by understanding what relapses are and what to look for, there is hope to get an alcoholic back on track.

Creekside Recovery Residences offers sober living options for those in need of a structured environment for recovery from alcohol addiction. We also provide outpatient treatment services that further help those struggling after a relapse.

What is a Relapse?

A relapse is a re-occurrence of symptoms of a disease or disorder. For alcoholics, this means that they begin drinking again. They might also engage in other problematic behaviors that accompany alcoholism or even supplement drinking with replacement addictions. These could include things like sex addiction, gambling, or excessive shopping.

However, the key takeaway when an alcoholic relapses is that this is not a sign of failure nor does it mean that the person is hopeless. Remember that alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic disease–and all chronic diseases carry the risk of relapse.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), relapse rates for substance use disorders (SUD) are about 40-60%. Compared to other chronic diseases, like asthma and hypertension, this rate is relatively low. But, despite the lower relapse rates of SUD compared to other diseases, a relapse on alcohol can be dangerous or even deadly.

What to Do When an Alcoholic Relapses?

Knowing what to do during a relapse is critical to recovery from alcoholism. Many treatment programs include relapse prevention as part of the process. That way, clients are equipped with the coping skills they need to recognize a relapse and get back on track in recovery.

However, even with a relapse prevention strategy, an alcoholic in recovery must have a support system to help them in case of a relapse. Oftentimes, during a relapse, alcoholics could be in denial of the problem, or they falsely believe they can handle it on their own.

The following tips can help when an alcoholic relapses:

  • Approach them without judgment. They are likely aware that they’ve made a mistake. They could also be struggling with something else, such as a co-occurring mental health disorder or a distressing life event that caused them to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Seek medical attention. After a period of sobriety, an alcoholic’s tolerance for alcohol lessens. They could be in danger if they drink excessively, as their bodies cannot handle the amount of alcohol they consumed before treatment.
  • Talk to them about treatment when they are sober. Safety comes first when an alcoholic relapses. Many loved ones feeling upset about the relapse might feel tempted to bring up getting back to treatment. However, the primary concern at first must be ensuring the person is safe.
  • Reach out for help. No one expects the alcoholic to recover alone, and this extends to loved ones. The person’s treatment team could have strategies to help loved ones intervene during a relapse.

Of course, one of the most important things for family and loved ones can do is learn how to recognize when a relapse occurs. It is also vital to know what stage of relapse a person is in.

What Are the 3 Stages of Relapse?

Relapses occur in stages that progress in severity over time. Thus, the earlier a person recognizes a relapse, the better. That way, the alcoholic can get help before fully relapsing and drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol.

According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, relapse occurs in the following three stages:

1. Emotional Relapse

During the emotional stage, an alcoholic isn’t even thinking about drinking. However, they are beginning to exhibit poor coping skills that could lead to drinking. For instance, they might bottle up emotions, isolate from loved ones, or no longer attend peer support groups.

Remember that drinking alcohol is a maladaptive way of coping with underlying emotional distress. Thus, when an alcoholic stops using healthy coping strategies, then things could get worse until they resort to alcohol to self-medicate.

2. Mental Relapse

When an alcoholic is in the mental relapse stage, they start thinking about drinking again. This could include reminiscing about past alcohol abuse, minimizing their addiction, or planning how to drink again without others knowing. In addition, an alcoholic in recovery for years could falsely believe that they can handle alcohol now without sliding back to a full-blown addiction.

3. Physical Relapse

The final stage, a physical relapse, is when the alcoholic starts drinking again. Sometimes, a person has one drink—during a celebration or special occasion—and this starts a mental relapse. In other words, they have one drink, put it down, and then start thinking, “I can drink again–that one drink didn’t lead to more.” Gradually, they begin drinking again until they are right back to the same level of severity as they were before treatment.

Often, the physical stage is what most people think of when they hear the word “relapse.” However, a relapse can begin long before a person starts drinking again. It is important to recognize the warning signs in the earlier stages to prevent a physical relapse.

Warning Signs of a Relapse

Family members and loved ones often notice changes during or before a relapse. Since drinking is only one symptom of relapse, other unhealthy behavioral patterns resurface when an alcoholic relapses.

Warning signs of a relapse include the following:

  • Change in mood or attitude
  • Disheveled appearance
  • Glorifying past instances of alcohol abuse
  • Spending more time alone
  • Canceling plans and other obligations
  • Problems at work, like tardiness, not showing up, or arguments with co-workers
  • Secretive behaviors
  • No longer attending peer support or outpatient treatment programs

Overall, any changes that are similar to a person’s behavior before treatment could be a sign of relapse. In addition, it is important to be on alert when an alcoholic experiences significant life changes. For example, moving, having a child, or a death in the family could elevate a person’s stress levels and lead to a relapse.

How to Move Past a Relapse

Moving past a relapse depends upon which stage a person is in when they recognize the relapse. During an emotional or mental relapse, this could involve getting back into therapy or talking to a sponsor or recovery coach about specific issues. This could prevent a physical relapse and get the person back on track before things get worse.

However, moving past a physical relapse could be more challenging. Most importantly, the person must remember that a relapse is not a sign of failure—it’s just a sign that they need additional help. After that, creating a plan with their support team can help them move past a relapse.

Each person will have different treatment needs to get back on track after a relapse. Fortunately, there are several treatment options available.

Treatment Options After Relapse

Some people will need a higher level of care than others after a relapse. Depending upon the severity of the relapse, they could need inpatient detox services again to get sober. After that, they could get either inpatient or outpatient treatment in the following ways:

  • Residential rehab programs. Residential, or inpatient, treatment programs typically last 30-90 days after detoxification. The person will live in the facility throughout their treatment program to keep them safe from relapsing.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHP). Also called “day treatment, a PHP requires attendance 4-5 days per week for the majority of the day. Unlike residential programs, however, the client can return home or to a supportive living program each day.
  • Intensive outpatient programs (IOP). IOP programs are a form of outpatient treatment with a flexible schedule to allow clients to work, take care of family, or attend school during treatment. Most IOP programs occur in the evenings to fit around a person’s schedule.
  • Sober living programs. Oftentimes, an alcoholic could relapse if they aren’t in a structured environment. For instance, a recovering alcoholic might struggle to stay sober if their roommate drinks or uses drugs. Sober living homes help clients stay safe and sober as they get their lives together after a relapse.
  • Peer support programs. Attendance at a peer support program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery can help a person maintain sobriety after a relapse. Recovering alcoholics can share their experiences with peers, build a support system, and learn healthy coping skills from their peers.

Regardless of what treatment path a person chooses, it is vital to get professional help when an alcoholic relapses to prevent life-threatening consequences and get them back on track in recovery.

Get Help for a Relapse Today

Relapses occur during recovery from every chronic disease—including alcohol use disorder (AUD). A relapse is not a sign that a person has failed or cannot recover. Rather, a relapse simply means that a person needs additional support as they continue on their journey in recovery.

Creekside Recovery Residences offers structured sober living homes, as well as outpatient treatment, recovery coaching, and case management for those in recovery from AUD. Contact us today to get back on track after a relapse.

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