Why Do We Relapse in Drug Addiction Recovery?

adolescents and substance abuse - Girl drinking alcohol

Contributor: Nikki Baker, Content Writer at JourneyPure.

“I have a problem,” you say to yourself. It’s a brave and scary thing to admit that your drug addiction is beyond your control. That this addiction is taking over your life, isolating you from friends and family. You’ve come to realize you are now a shell of the person you once were, unable to find joy in anything – unless you’re high.

The good news is, this is the first in a five-step path to addiction recovery. Steps two and three, Consideration and Exploring Recovery, are action-oriented; learning more about addiction and considering treatment options.

Steps four and five, Early Recovery and Active Recovery and Maintenance, are where the work begins. It’s also a time when relapse is a strong possibility. [1]

Risk of Relapse

The fact is, as many as 60 percent of addicts will relapse within the first 90 days of recovery.

That’s a daunting statistic to face when someone suffering from addiction is making every effort to rebuild their life without drugs.

Experts say it is not only possible, but that it is very likely that addiction recovery relapse will occur – and it doesn’t mean the person has failed. It doesn’t mean they will never get clean.

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that takes an immense amount of treatment, therapy and aftercare to control. It will be a lifelong battle for most, and some will relapse multiple times. [2]

Woman at the beach struggling with a relapse of drug addictionThe urge has become so incredibly strong to use, addicts are powerless to the tight grip drugs have on them. The brain has changed with extended drug use.

For so long, it has been getting a surge of dopamine 2 to 10 times higher than normal levels it receives from natural rewards like food and sex.

The brain craves more and more, and eventually the user’s brain produces less dopamine because it’s been getting such powerful doses from drug use.

If a user doesn’t have the drug, they can become incredibly depressed and find it hard to experience joy in everyday things. Therefore, treatment and aftercare are essential to help relieve the system of drugs and to help reduce the chances of relapse. [3]

Coping with Triggers in the Early Stages of Recovery

When looking more closely at step four, Early Recovery, it’s not difficult to see why relapse is prevalent here.

Addicts will have learned in treatment that the best chances for lifelong sobriety and reduced chance for relapse is to develop healthy habits and surround themselves with a positive support system.

They’ll need to disassociate from people, environments and activities that were related to their drug use. Sometimes friendships need to end. New hobbies and activities need to replace old habits. A person in early recovery is learning to live a new life.

Essential for a recovering addict to prevent relapse is to recognize and steer clear of triggers. Triggers can be a person, place or thing, and although not everyone shares the same triggers, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers some that are common [4]:

  • The anniversary dates of losses or trauma
  • Frightening news events
  • Too much to do; feeling overwhelmed
  • Family friction
  • The end of a relationship
  • Spending too much time alone
  • Being judged, criticized, teased or put down
  • Financial problems; getting a big bill
  • Physical illness
  • Sexual harassment
  • Being yelled at
  • Aggressive-sounding noises or exposure to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Being around someone who has treated you badly
  • Certain smells, tastes or noises that remind you of your drug of choice


Man choosing a program by the sea

Also helpful in preventing relapse is recognizing the signs that point to an addict using again.

Recovering addicts are in a constant state of healing the mind, body and spirit. A noticeable unbalance within this trio could lead a vulnerable person to turn to an old “friend” for comfort. Stressful situations can cause a person to relapse because the addict is used to coping with life’s challenges by using drugs.

If in recovery there is a sense of hopelessness and despair, isolation or a loss of interest in friends and family, it’s a sign to seek help. For so long, the addict has numbed the pain with drugs. If signs of relapse are present, it’s a good time to stop, take a breath, and determine whether a re-assessment of the relapse recovery program is needed. [5]

Experts understand that relapse in addiction recovery is part of the process and encourage those in recovery not to give up. Learning and applying the principles of the recovery plan is the best measure in reducing relapse rates and living a life of sobriety.

About JourneyPure:  The mission of the JourneyPure family of treatment facilities is to assist each patient in recovery from addictive behaviors, substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders by utilizing a truly integrated treatment model. With exceptional clinical services, JourneyPure provides a full continuum of care focused on relapse prevention and long-term recovery.

About the Author:

Nikki BakerNikki Baker joined JourneyPure as a Content Writer in April 2017. She is responsible for social media, website and blog content that both informs the public about the addiction crisis in this country and recognizes JourneyPure as a leader in addiction treatment.

She began her career at The Nashville City Paper as an Education Reporter, covering Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, writing both news and feature articles. The bulk of her career has been spent in nonprofit. Prior to joining JourneyPure, served 13 years at PENCIL Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to link community resources with Nashville public schools. Throughout her tenure, she held roles in program management, partnership and volunteer recruitment and management as well as communications management.

Nikki graduated in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts, journalism from Belmont University in Nashville. She is originally from upstate NY but has lived in the Nashville area since 1992. She enjoys spending time with her 13-year-old daughter and their two dogs.


[1] http://www.crchealth.com/find-a-treatment-center/washington-treatment-information/5-stages-addiction-recovery/
[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics
[3] https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain
[4] https://www.addiction.com/in-recovery/relapse/recognizing-triggers/
[5] https://www.addiction.com/in-recovery/relapse/relapse-signs/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on June 3, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 3, 2017.
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.