Stages of Relapse: Prevention Strategies

Part of living an empowered sober life is relapse prevention. While the individual tools and strategies for relapse prevention will differ depending on the person, the beginning step is always recognizing what things trigger your desire to use. Once you recognize them you can begin to understand why they are triggers for you and implement healthy relapse prevention strategies.  

The Three Stages of Relapse

When a person in recovery starts to struggle with relapse they go through three stages, each of which is reversible

1. Emotional Relapse

The first stage is emotional relapse where your habits are setting you up to relapse in the future. There are no thoughts of using at this point

2. Mental Relapse

The second phase is mental relapse where a person begins having a mental battle over staying sober. Cravings are common at this stage.

3. Physical Relapse

The third stage is also known as drug seeking behavior because a person is physically taking actions that will allow them to use substances.

The Dimensions of Relapse Prevention

Relapse Prevention plan worksheet

While there are many great books and articles about recovery and relapse, finding and reading them can take time. If you want to start your relapse prevention plan now, click here.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional Relapse is the first and most stage of relapse. Nearly everyone will experience it at some point of their recovery. During this stage someone is not thinking about using drugs or alcohol, but they are doing things that will eventually endanger their sobriety. 

Signs of Emotional Relapse:

  • Isolating
  • Eating poorly on a regular basis
  • Not getting enough sleep 
  • Bottling up emotions instead of dealing with them
  • Avoiding stresses as opposed to dealing with them


Emotional relapse happens when your attention to self-care slips. Nobody is perfect, so it’s likely that at some point of your recovery you may begin to feel the signs of emotional relapse and it’s important to remember that there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Recovery is not always easy and you are a human being. Luckily, recovering from an emotional relapse is a matter of getting back into healthy routines. You just need to find the unhealthy elements first. 

Click here for a free relapse prevention guide

Assess Your Self-Care 

Emotional relapse often starts with neglecting our self-care. So to recover, you should start by examining how well you’ve been taking care of yourself. Look at the list below and think about the past 7 days. How well would you rate yourself in these categories?  

  • Sleep: Are you getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night, going to bed and waking up at around the same time? 
  • Nutrition: Are you eating at least 2-3 healthy meals a day? Are these meals proportional? For example, barely eating all day and binging at night can make you feel tired during the day and make sleeping difficult at night. 
  • Water: Are you drinking enough water? Most health professionals recommend drinking 11-12 glasses of water every day. 
  • Exercise: Are you doing things to get your heart rate elevated? It’s an important tool for recovery, outlet for stress, and mood booster. If you’re in recovery you should try to get your heart rate up at least 5 days a week for 30 minutes. 
  • Socialization: Are you spending time with your intimate loved ones? Keep in mind that intimacy doesn’t mean sex. Intimacy means those who truly know you, people who you can truly be you around, people you can confide in and rely on.  
  • Recovery Groups: Have you been attending your groups or recovery resources? This is an important cornerstone of recovery. Hearing your words can be a source of help for someone, who could help you in the future. 
  • Self-Talk: Are you being kind to yourself? The way we speak to ourselves colors the way we think about ourselves. And how we think about ourselves affects our mood, self-esteem, energy, motivation, and interactions with others. 

The effects of neglecting these will combine with other problems to push you towards relapse. For instance, you’ve likely dealt with stressful days without substances. But imagine dealing with a craving after that same stressful day if you also hadn’t been sleeping enough, had barely eaten all day, and were dehydrated. 

** Sometimes signs of emotional relapse can be the product of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, which is a collection of psychological and mood-related symptoms that occur in the first years of sobriety.

Mental Relapse:

Mental relapse happens when our lack of self-care creates consequences that combine with other everyday problems and produce even bigger stressors. With time, these things build up — creating larger and larger desires to escape. The result is a battle you fight with yourself between using and not using. You may be thinking of using at the start of mental relapse, but by the end of it, you’ll likely start planning your relapse.

Signs of Mental Relapse:

  • Thinking about people, places, and things you used with
  • Thinking about relapsing
  • Romanticizing your past use
  • Hanging out with old friends who still use
  • Awfulizing your sobriety
  • Bargaining with yourself about “one more” drink or hit
  • Planning your relapse around other people’s schedules

Recovering From Mental Relapse:

With proper intervention it’s very possible to recover from mental relapse. It’s a matter of addressing the lack of self-care that made you vulnerable to additional stress and resisting the addiction related thought-behavior patterns that occur in mental relapse.  It’s important to act early on in this phase. In the beginning of mental relapse, thoughts about using may occur to you but by the end of it you’ll likely be planning how to relapse. 

Reach Out To Someone:

The secret to beating mental relapse is that it’s far far easier if you aren’t fighting it alone. This is a war with yourself so tell someone you’re thinking of using and you’ll instantly stack the odds against addiction. Plus, once you start talking about what’s going on you’ll feel much less alone and your urges won’t seem so powerful. 

Call your friends, family members, sponsor, go to a meeting, or call us at 503-850-2474. Even in recovery, addiction has a terrible ability to make us feel too ashamed to reach out to people who can help us. Just remember that if sobriety were easy, everyone would do it. There is 0 shame in asking someone to help you stay clean. 

Click here for more mental relapse prevention strategies

Physical Relapse: 

Physical relapse is the third and final part of relapse. It occurs when you have made up your mind to relapse and are actively displaying drug seeking behaviors.

Examples of Physical Relapse or Drug Seeking Behaviors:

  • Driving to the liquor store
  • Calling a dealer
  • Lying to make it easier to use
  • Going to places you went to use 
  • Hanging out with friends you know will be using 
  • Buying paraphernalia (pipes, foil, needles) 

If someone has an addiction they cannot moderate their use of a substance. Their lapse will turn into a relapse again and again. The good news is that with help, understanding, support, and encouragement from the people who love them, their lapse or relapse can be the start of a new recovery.

Recovering From Physical Relapse:

If someone doesn’t reach out during the stage of physical relapse, it’s all but certain they will use drugs or alcohol again. The question now is what will happen next. It’s possible to help someone cut their relapse short after they’ve begun using. 

  • Lapse: A brief slip off from recovery for a couple of days.
  • Relapse: Repeating lapses that build into more and more time away from sobriety. 

This is How to Recover From Physical Relapse

End Relapse:

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of relapse, give us a call anytime at 503-850-2474. We can help you build a life where you no longer want or need substances. For more info, see our reviews and success rates.

Ready to take your life back?

Call (503) 850-2474