Staying Sober After Treatment: How to Prevent Drug Relapse

Relapse Prevention for Alcohol Abuse: Tips for Staying Sober

Ongoing Strategies for Staying Substance-Free

Although relapse – returning to abusing an addictive substance after a period of sobriety – is unfortunately common, there are many ways to set yourself up for success after completing the formal treatment process. If you do experience relapse, it’s not the end of the world: There are steps you can do to get back on track.

The two main things you need to set yourself up for success are:

  1. A solid relapse prevention plan
  2. A firm commitment to building a new life without drugs or alcohol

The Recovery Journey

Rather than thinking of addiction recovery as a goal you achieve after treatment and then either keep or lose, it’s more helpful to think of recovery as a journey – one that will have many twists and turns. It will last for your entire life, and while the road will not always be easy, you have the power at any point to change direction according to your desires, hopes and dreams.

In preparation for your recovery trip, you want to make sure that you have:

  • A good map: Your relapse prevention plan
  • A toolbox: A set of skills you’ve learned in treatment for managing cravings and stressful situations after rehab
  • A full tank of gas: Your physical health, which you’ll need to maintain along the way, just like getting the tank refilled on a trip
  • A spare tire: A trusted support person who is your go-to resource when things get tough
  • Road knowledge: Being aware of the warning signs that indicate a high-risk situation that could trigger relapse

Be sure to keep all of your resources updated and add new ones as your journey progresses.


How to Prevent Drug Addiction Relapse

A relapse-prevention plan provides strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with triggers and difficult situations, as well as guidelines for establishing healthy habits and routines.

Strategies fall into two main groups:

  1. Learn to recognize warning signs of circumstances that could trigger a relapse.
  2. Build effective coping skills to deal with challenging situations when they arise.

Next, let’s look at some of the specific scenarios that a strong relapse-prevention plan will cover. Click on any of the following items to delve further into the various concerns a robust relapse-prevention plan should address:

Identify Potential High-Risk Situations

High-risk situations in this context refers to any people, places, objects or circumstances that might give you the urge to starting using again.

High-risk situations to watch out for include:

  • People you used to hang out with who are still using
  • Situations where the substance you were addicted to is available, like a party where alcohol is served
  • Going to, or simply walking past, places you associate with substance use, like your favorite bar
  • Any activities that you used to do while high or drunk
  • Social situations that cause you stress, anxiety, anger, depression or any unpleasant emotion that you used to deal with by using
  • Stress and/or overwork
  • Boredom

It’s a good idea to evaluate your social relationships and decide whether to return to interacting with certain people and groups after you leave a treatment program. For example, friends you used to do drugs with and difficult family members who drive you to drink are probably not people you want in your new, sober life.

If possible, make these decisions before you leave treatment and incorporate into your recovery plan how you’re going to interact with these people the next time you talk to them.

In general, it’s best to avoid all high-risk situations. But, practically speaking, that’s not always possible, which brings us to coping strategies.

Create Coping Strategies

How you respond to a high-risk situation is actually what determines if relapse occurs. An important part of addiction treatment is learning the knowledge and skills to resist temptation and deal with whatever comes at you.

Some of what you’ll learn includes:

  • Behaviors – such as leaving the situation
  • Mental techniques – such as positive self-talk
  • Emotional management – such as what to do when you start to feel depressed or angry

As you learn and practice these skills, both during and after treatment, you’ll develop self-efficacy – confidence in your ability to handle a certain situation. The more success you experience, the stronger your self-efficacy will grow.

Shift Beliefs and Expectations

When faced with the temptation to use drugs or alcohol, you may only be thinking about the positive benefits of using in the moment, not the negative effects that usually happen later on, or right after. Those who are focused on instant gratification are more likely to relapse compared to those who take a more long-term view of the situation.

This is where education on the whole picture of the effects of using and the benefits of sobriety come into play. Many of the perceived benefits are just myths or placebo effect. Your treatment program and personal therapists should be able to help you learn how to look at the bigger picture.

Control Overall Lifestyle Factors

In addition to avoiding specific situations that can trigger a lapse in sobriety, there are also things you can do to establish a lifestyle that makes it easier to stay on your desired recovery path:

  • Balance external demands (things you should or must do) and enjoyable activities (things you want to do). Too many demands can lead to stress, and the temptation to use substances to relieve stress. It may be helpful to track how much of your day is spent in each type of activity and then look for imbalances.
  • Make sure you have plenty of go-to activities to relieve boredom and stress that are fun and healthy alternatives to using. This is one of the reasons we place such an emphasis on recreational activities at Reflections.
  • Develop “positive addictions” such as sports, working out, meditation, yoga, etc. that are enjoyable and have positive effects on mental, physical and spiritual health.
  • Maintain a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, exercise and take care of your body.
  • Insist on healthy relationships. End the relationships that are causing you stress and add new relationships that fit the lifestyle you are creating for yourself going forward.

Manage Urges and Cravings

An urge is the sudden impulse to consume, and a craving is a desire to experience the perceived positive effects of using. It’s normal to experience urges and cravings in recovery.

You can’t avoid cravings and urges entirely, so when they strike, use the 4 D’s to manage them:


Rather than give in right away, delay the decision to use, either until the urge passes or until you can find another way to cope with the craving.


Use deep, relaxing breathing to calm yourself in the moment.


Immediately engage in another activity that will take your mind off your craving.


Don’t panic. Remind yourself of the resources available to you in your relapse emergency toolkit. Remember that help is always available to you through your support network, and that you learned skills in treatment to cope with this kind of situation.

What to Do If You Relapse – Getting Back on Track

If you do experience relapse, think of it as a temporary problem, not a permanent failure. It is common for people to relapse, then find their way back to a sober lifestyle.

Here’s what you need to know to get back on track:

  • Remember that a single setback doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doomed to return to uncontrolled substance abuse. Decide to learn from this situation and move on with renewed commitment.
  • Attribute the lapse to a temporary failure in coping with that particular situation, not as an overall lack of willpower or ability.
  • Let go of feelings of guilt and failure and see your recovery as a constant work in progress.
  • Reach out for help right away, and don’t let the problem escalate. Reconnecting with the people who helped you get sober may be just what you need to regain your footing.

Relapse Prevention

Transitioning from Residential Treatment to Sober Living

For men who have demonstrated a strong commitment to recovery during our treatment program in Prescott, Arizona, we offer a special aftercare program that combines ongoing outpatient services with the opportunity to live in a 3/4-style house – similar to a halfway house but with greater autonomy.

In this program, our alumni manage the home themselves, pay rent and hold jobs to support themselves. They continue treatment with us yet, have fewer restrictions placed on them, so that they can experience a truly transitional feel while they learn to integrate their new recovery strategies into everyday life.

See How We Support Our Alumni in Preventing Drug Relapse:

Explore Our Aftercare Program


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