While the initial experimentation with drugs or alcohol may have been a choice or even a recreational practice, for many, it becomes a disease. Whatever desired experience a person is chasing by indulging in drugs or alcohol does not come without consequences. Drug and alcohol use can lead to abuse, leading to dependency, and finally, addiction. Dependency and addiction to drugs and alcohol are terrible to behold, and the damage it causes, not only to the person affected but to personal and professional relationships, is catastrophic.

Drugs and alcohol change the brain’s chemistry, which for many can result in substance use disorder (SUD), a legitimately diagnosable mental health disorder. These major changes to the brain’s functionality are challenging to overcome, so addiction “is considered a ‘relapsing’ disease,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Relapse occurs if a person returns to using drugs or drinking alcohol after a time of abstinence. NIDA also states that relapse is common, but it “doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work.” Relapse, for many, is part of the ongoing struggle to lead a sober lifestyle and can mean the need for a relapse prevention program.

What Factors Can Trigger a Relapse?

Various triggers can tempt a person to seek out drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Emotions
  • Familiar places
  • People
  • Lack of activity
  • Holidays and special occasions


Stress can manifest as headaches, anxiety, insomnia, or other uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms. When stress builds and remains unresolved, using a substance that “helps take the edge off” is tempting.


Deeply felt negative emotions such as anger, grief, or jealousy can trigger substance use in order “to calm down.” Even extreme joy or happiness can trigger previous habits through the impulse to celebrate or “party.”

Familiar Places

Returning to familiar places can also trigger relapse behavior. Whether the location is the exact spot where a person previously used substances or is simply similar doesn’t matter. Even sights, sounds, and smells can bring back old cravings.


Visiting former friends who also used drugs or alcohol can create the temptation to relapse. Also, certain family members or friends who create stress or strong emotions can stir up unresolved issues and contribute to relapse.

Lack of Activity

Staying busy with fun and exciting activities is critical for leading a sober lifestyle. Boredom and frustration are common triggers that can lead to a relapse into harmful behaviors.

Holidays and Special Occasions

Holidays, birthdays, weddings, and funerals frequently involve alcohol could contribute to a relapse.

Who Is at Risk for Relapse?

Not everyone in recovery will relapse, even when faced with potential triggers. So, why are some people more at risk than others? People who have recently completed addiction treatment are more likely to relapse than those who have successfully maintained a sober lifestyle for a year or more. This is because it takes time and practice to establish a sober lifestyle and implement coping skills learned during recovery.

Also, mental illness and SUD often co-occur. Frequent bouts of anxiety, depression, and other mental challenges can often contribute to a relapse, even if treated with medications prescribed by a medical professional. While anyone recovering from addiction faces some risk of relapse, the person’s substance of choice can also influence their chances of slipping back into old habits. The more addictive a drug or the longer the person has struggled with addiction influences their possibility of recovery, with opioids and cocaine having the highest risks associated with relapse.

The Five Rules of Recovery

The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine (YJBM) presents five rules of recovery:

1. Change Your Life

Recovery demands change. The key elements to change are negative patterns of thinking and behavior, avoiding the individuals, groups, hang-outs, and things previously associated with substance use, and actively following the five rules of recovery.

2. Honesty

A lifestyle involving addiction invariably includes deceit. Learning honesty takes time. First and foremost, people in recovery must be honest with themselves. They must also be frank with those most involved in their recovery: health care practitioners, trusted friends and family, and support groups. As confidence builds, honesty can extend to healing past injuries caused to others by lying.

3. Seek Help

Attempting recovery alone has a low probability of success and a high likelihood of stress and anxiety. No matter where in the recovery stage you are, seek professional help to maintain a sober lifestyle.

4. Practice Self-Care

Practicing self-care is not selfish; it’s necessary. As the YJBM states, “poor self-care often precedes drug or alcohol use.” Learning to take time for reflection, meditation, exercise, and sober activities that bring joy will mitigate the chance of relapse.

5. Don’t Bend the Rules

This rule serves as a reminder that there is no bargaining or compromising with addiction. There are no loopholes. The YJBM classifies people in recovery into two categories: “non-users and denied users.” Non-users recognize that using is no longer an option, so their odds of relapsing will be smaller. Denied users, however, will have a higher risk for relapse because they believe they can use drugs or alcohol again at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, because of this mindset, “many people have relapsed this way 5, 10, or 15 years after recovery.” For this reason, the rules of recovery are not rules that can be broken.

Get the Help You Need at SBT

Recovery from a Substance Use Disorder takes time, and even after you achieve abstinence, a sober lifestyle takes dedication and commitment to maintain. It’s natural to encounter situations and people that will tempt old patterns and habits to recur. If this happens, do not despair; relapse is often a part of the recovery and learning process.
Call 833.999.1941 to learn more and get the help you need to live a life of sobriety.