If you or a loved one has gone through the recovery process, then relapse is an all too familiar term. Unfortunately, relapse is a common occurrence for those struggling with substance abuse. Too often, people will enter sobriety, work on themselves and their substance issues, only to relapse after days, weeks, months, or even years of sobriety. This is where a relapse prevention plan comes in handy; by creating and utilizing a relapse prevention plan, individuals can highly increase their chances of not only staying sober, but getting back to healthy habits and sobriety if/when relapse does occur.
What is a Relapse Prevention Plan?
Typically, a relapse prevention plan is a guide to understanding your patterns, and then setting actionable goals around what to do if relapse does occur. The plan is two-fold: if you can identify triggers, cravings, and potential pitfalls ahead of time, you are more likely to avoid relapse in the first place. Secondly, you’ll want to have a predetermined plan around exactly what to do, who to call, and where to “restart” if relapse does occur.
Let’s look at the first portion of a relapse prevention plan first, i.e. self-awareness. A standard relapse prevention plan will want to identify common triggers and cravings.
So what exactly are triggers? They can be essentially anything that causes cravings for a person struggling with substance abuse. People, places, and things can catalyze powerful sensory recall. Oftentimes, addicts/alcoholics are unaware that these triggers exist until they are already dangerously close to a relapse. However, because of the way our brains operate, each trigger is going to be highly personal. Let’s look at some examples of how this might differ from person to person:
The most common “people” triggers are those that the individual used drugs/alcohol with. Certain friend groups, or even family members, can trigger cravings almost immediately if there are memories of drug use associated with the person. One individual might be triggered by their parents (especially if they are habitual drug/alcohol users). Someone else might find their parents to be the best people that help foster and support a sober lifestyle.
As far as triggering places go, it is frequent that individuals will experience strong cravings when returning to environments that they previously used drugs/alcohol in. Households, old neighborhoods, concert venues, hiking trails, vehicles: they can all trigger sensory recall of a time when using substances was still fun, before the addiction took over.
Are you seeing a common thread yet? That’s right, any ’thing’ that a person has associated with their past drug use can be extremely triggering. Paraphernalia can be especially triggering. However, even “positive” objects can bring someone back to old times very quickly, and often with negative effects. Though counterintuitive, sometimes even an old photo of happier times with supportive people can cause a craving immediately.
Identifying people, places, and things that are associated with past substance use can be paramount to a person’s continued, long-term sobriety. Often, for at least the first year of sobriety, persons will want to actively avoid these triggers to the best of their ability.
As the old saying from Alcoholics Anonymous goes: “If you hang out in the barbershop long enough, you’re bound to get a haircut”.
Relapse Prevention and Cravings
What exactly are cravings? By common definition, cravings are physical and mental urges to use drugs and/or alcohol. Cravings can be extremely powerful, especially in the first year of sobriety. Many cravings are brought on by triggers, as discussed above. However, sometimes cravings can happen for no obvious reason, regardless of sensory recall or otherwise.
There are some general timelines to be aware of, typically described as Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms (PAWS). Generally, the sobriety milestones of 30, 60, 90, and 180 days are prone to increased PAWS, and thus cravings. This is because of the dopamine and serotonin disruption that substances cause to the brain, and those receptors will recover over time. Thankfully, the physical symptoms of cravings only last approximately 10-20 minutes. Thus, if you can utilize the coping skills you identify in your relapse prevention plan, there is opportunity for success every single time you experience physical cravings.
Mental cravings, however, are different than the physical. While physical cravings are brief, the mental side can be carried on for hours. Again, it is paramount that individuals suffering from substance abuse use their coping skills to relieve the mind of the need to use. In early sobriety, limiting distractions of any sort can be of the utmost importance to getting through cravings.
Coping skills tie into the second portion of relapse prevention plans. It is essential for someone in recovery to develop a set of actions they can engage in prior to or after a potential relapse. Prior to relapse, coping skills can be utilized to disengage from triggering situations and intense cravings. Some examples of these types of coping skills might include:
- Going for a run
- Calling a close friend or family member
- Playing an instrument
- Cooking a good meal
- Swimming, biking, playing sports – any type of physical activity can help
If relapse does occur, then alternate coping skills should be put in place as quickly as possible in order to minimize the risk of prolonged drug/alcohol use. Many people in sobriety use coping skills and plans of action such as:
- Attending a community support group meeting (such as Alcoholics Anonymous)
- Calling a sponsor, or other trusted confidant
- Having an individual therapy session with a therapist
Sobriety and Your Relapse Prevention Plan
Relapse prevention plans will need to be created on an individual basis, as each individual’s struggles and needs are unique. Developing an understanding of these three core concepts (triggers, cravings, and coping skills) will greatly increase a person’s chances of long-term recovery and sobriety. Substance abuse is an extremely potent disease, from both physiological and mental perspectives. It is important to take every precaution necessary.
If you need help developing a relapse prevention plan, or need help addressing a loved one’s substance abuse issue, please contact us today. Our highly-trained addiction specialists will be happy to aid you in the journey of recovery.