January means millions of us are working toward getting organized, paying down debt or losing 30 pounds. Unfortunately, by March most of us will have had several setbacks if we haven’t thrown in the towel altogether. We don’t normally see these impediments as abnormal. However, when we have a substance abuse relapse we are often filled with shame, guilt, despair, and regret. It’s understandable since we may have let people down or done things we are not proud of. The thing to remember is that abstaining from an addiction is similar to many other major life changes. We should see relapses as a normal part of the recovery process. Afterall, how many false starts did you have before you finally got organized, paid off the debt, or lost 30 pounds?

View a Relapse as a Learning Experience

If it’s true that we learn most from our failures, than relapse is applicable here. The first thing to do when it happens is talk with your sponsor or counselor and determine what went awry. Remember that addiction is often a coping strategy for difficult emotions or life challenges. It is these very emotions that trigger the relapse. So on a deeper level one could say that a substance abuse relapse is really an emotional relapse. But if we are in the habit of stuffing our emotions, we may relapse and not even understand how since we are emotionally disconnected from ourselves. We want to learn how to handle our emotions in healthier ways that don’t include reaching for a substance. Negative emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety and depression are major causes of relapse. Since these are pretty common emotions, if we do not learn how to soberly manage them we are in trouble.

Relapse Often Happens because we don’t Have a Plan

Once we begin to understand the types of emotions and situations that trigger us to drink or use, we can develop a response plan. Most people who relapse said they were not expecting the situation, and they were not prepared. Think of all the things in life we prepare for like job interviews or speeches. A relapse prevention plan could save our life and yet so many of us have no plans for how to say no to a drink or handle a difficult emotion or situation.

We Have no Plan because we Lack Coping Skills

The reason relapses are common in the early stages of recovery is so often addicts lack appropriate coping skills. If we grew up in a dysfunctional family environment where there was addiction, abuse, chaos, or neglect, we tend to view the world as a rather unsafe or scary place. While trying to survive in this environment as a child, we were not allowed the opportunity to work on our own emotional development. Perhaps the only way we know how to cope with challenges is the way we were taught in that environment. Furthermore, our brains were developing at that time making these dysfunctional patterns harder to change later in life. Many times relapse prevention is not a matter of relearning coping strategies, it is a matter of learning them period. Given this scenario, we can see why relapse is unavoidable if we are lacking in coping skills.

Remember that negative emotions are one of the biggest reasons for relapse. Understanding this will give you a good starting point to work on your recovery. If you do relapse it is also very important you do not beat yourself up with guilt and shame as these negative emotions are triggers that can keep the addictive cycle going. There are a number or relapse prevention strategies and you can learn more about them in my podcast: “Relapse Prevention Strategies Part One” and “Relapse Prevention Strategies part 2.”

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