A Guide to Relapse Prevention

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Many people can and do complete alcoholism treatment programs and drink alcohol again. However, it is common for individuals to struggle with their sobriety. Statistics show that substance abuse relapse falls within the same range as other chronic diseases such as Type I diabetes, asthma, and hypertension.1 That being said, it is important to understand why relapse happens and how it can be avoided.

In 1985, researchers Marlatt and Gordon developed a model of relapse prevention based on psychological principles. The authors suggest that people who relapse are placed in a high-risk situation. Then each individual responds with an effective or ineffective coping response.2 One take away from this model is that having coping mechanisms is critical when an individual faces a high-risk situation.

Common Triggers

Stressed office workerOne of the most common triggers for relapse is when an individual is in a high emotional state. According to Psychology Today, an individual’s emotions can make him feel unstable and that leads to a loss of patience.3 For example, when someone is under stress he may feel deeply nervous and alert. His brain cells may know that a boost of alcohol will bring about a deep sense of relaxation. When someone in recovery faces stress, his body may call out for booze at deep, subconscious levels. The cravings could persist for days and could lead to a relapse.

Even feeling happy could be a trigger for some people. When the brain is filled with pleasurable signals, it may call out for even more pleasure through the use of alcohol. Some physical locations can cause a boost in cravings for alcohol. Typically, adult beverages are commonly served in social situations like weddings, business parties, and dinner dates. People in recovery can feel under pressure to use, and deep down inside, they may wonder if one little drink would do them some sort of harm.

For anyone who has alcohol struggles, spending time with people who are drinking—or who have been drinking buddies in the past—leads to cravings that are hard to resist. The fact that alcohol provides relaxation makes it a commonly abused substance for individuals with insomnia. People who can’t relax, can’t sleep, or just don’t feel well may be much too tempted to turn to alcohol as a solution.

Finding Solutions

Some relapse triggers can be avoided through good planning. For example, it is a good idea to steer clear of bars, raucous parties and friends who abuse alcohol. Instead, spend time in routines could help people to feel physically well and emotionally sound. Each of the following can be helpful in a recovery program:

  • Going to bed and getting up at the same times each day
  • Eating healthful meals on a regular schedule
  • Exercise regularly
  • Spend time in nature
  • Taking vitamins
  • Doing something creative each day

These steps help people build a life that supports a sober lifestyle. It is important to note that some triggers that just can’t be avoided. Low emotional states will creep in from time to time. For these situations, on-the-spot techniques can help people deal with these problems as they arise.

Using Community

Among people with alcoholism, relapse is regrettably common. However, the statistics are also encouraging when an individual stays sober for longer periods of time. Initially, one-third of people who are abstinent less than a year, stay abstinent. For those who achieve a year of sobriety, less than half will relapse. However, for individuals who have 5 years of sobriety, the relapse rate is less than 15 percent.4 These statistics indicate that most people who are in recovery know what it’s like to relapse. They may also know how a person can get sober again. When an individual connects with that community of knowledge he can find support and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

One of the most common ways to tap into a sober community is to attend support group meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous. So if a craving strikes, an individual can go to a meeting, which then allows the craving to pass. If a meeting isn’t available, a member of AA is usually willing to meet and talk through a craving with someone in need. The community tends to band together and support all members when times are tough. For some people, this can be amazingly important.

In addition, AA meetings provide alcoholics in recovery with a social opportunity that’s sober in nature. Some communities even have cruises, volunteer opportunities and parties for members. Participating in activities like this can be fun, but they can also remind people new to recovery that there is life after alcohol, and that life can be rewarding and amusing. It’s an important part of the relapse prevention program.

Many treatment facilities also offer alumni programs for people who have completed the programs. Again, these programs can provide support and a listening ear when cravings strike, but these programs can also be vital for people who have a lapse. When a person in recovery slips into drinking, that person might need a little more therapy or a few new techniques to keep that slip from becoming a relapse. Alumni programs may provide touch-up counseling or even re-admittance programs that can help people to get that additional help when they need it.

Janis M, one of our Heroes in Recovery, says sobriety is worth any effort you make to get the help you need. “Recovery is the best thing I have ever done in my life,” she says. “I am 56 years old, and I did not come into recovery until the age of 51. My life is so much better now than it was years ago. I have a great connection with my Higher Power and faith today.”

At Michael’s House, we provide intensive aftercare support after alcohol addiction treatment. We have an active alumni program that can provide social opportunities and a touch of support during tough times, and we also provide an open-door policy that allows our clients to connect with us when they need to do so.

With our help, you can beat an alcohol problem and develop a robust alcohol relapse prevention plan that can preserve your sobriety over the long-term. Please call our toll-free line at 760.548.4032 to talk to someone right now.


1Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute of Drug Abuse. July 2014.

2 Hendershot, Christian. “Relapse Prevention For Addictive Behaviors.” Substance Abuse Policy Bio Med Central. 19 July 2011.

3 Bennett, Carole. “6 Common Relapse Triggers.” Psychology Today. 21 February 2012.

4 Manejwala, Omar. “How Often Do Long-Term Sober Alcoholics and Addicts Relapse?” Psychology Today. 13 February 2014.