Recovering from a dependence on alcohol or another drug is a process that can take time.1 A relapse (or multiple relapses) is one part of the recovery process from alcohol and other drug dependence, and can often be a feature of the recovery.2
A relapse happens when a person stops maintaining his or her goal of reducing or avoiding use of alcohol or other drugs and returns to previous levels of use.3,4
This is different to a lapse, which is a temporary departure from a person’s alcohol and other drug goals followed by a return to their original goals. For example, a person who has set a goal of not drinking alcohol may end up having a glass of wine at a party, only to return to their alcohol goal the following day.4
The degree of substance use can vary within a lapse, but what makes a lapse different from a relapse is that a lapse is a brief period of return to substance use followed by a clear return to the person’s recovery goals.
Many things could lead a person to relapse. There is a strong connection between dependent alcohol or other drug use and personal challenges, problems at work, ongoing emotional and psychological issues, and social or economic problems such as financial hardship, rejection by social support networks and challenges in personal relationships.5
Much like dependent drug behaviours themselves, the process of recovery – and the reasons for relapse – can be highly personal. A relapse is not a sign that the person is ‘weak’ or a ‘failure’ – it is merely a continuation of old coping patterns that need to be replaced with new ones.2
There are a range of circumstances that may promote relapse.
It may take several attempts to get the right management strategies to maintain an alcohol and other drug goal in the long term.5
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Managing relapse is part of the long-term strategy of alcohol and other drug recovery. This means that the solutions are both immediate and focused on long-term behavioural changes.
When a person uses a drug regularly, they develop tolerance to it, which means they need to use more to get the same effect. If a person then doesn’t use it for a while, their tolerance to the drug may drop, so when they take their usual amount after a break from using, it could be too much for the body to cope with and lead to an overdose.
Overdose due to changed tolerance is a specific risk for people who return to using a drug after a period of non-use, at times such as post-release from prison, during detoxification and/or rehabilitation. Someone on naltrexone, for example, can be at risk if they use soon after stopping oral medication, or skipping a dose, or when the effects of a naltrexone implant have ceased.8
If an overdose is suspected, seek medical assistance immediately.
Long-term solutions for managing relapse are really about preventing relapse as much as possible. The following strategies have been proven effective for people who are dependent on alcohol or another drug in helping to reduce the risks of relapse on the road to recovery.
If a person has ongoing emotional, physical and/or mental health issues, they may need to use specific strategies in addition to those listed above to help them recover and prevent relapse.