Relapse Prevention

Relapse continues to be a very serious problem facing the substance abuse, mental health and criminal justice fields. Research suggests that nearly half of all chemical dependency clients relapse at least once. Many of these clients are not in denial, acknowledge their addictions and want to change their lives so they can stay off drugs. The problem is that they do not know how to do so, resulting in an inability to cope with the numerous temptations to use alcohol and drugs that confront them once they leave treatment. Clearly, relapse is a real threat and is too important to be ignored.

Despite the prevalence and importance of the problem many treatment agencies and drug courts do not have a specific relapse prevention track for clients, or are not using proven and effective relapse prevention approaches

What is Relapse?

In its simplest form, relapse can be defined as the resumption of alcohol or drug use after period of abstinence.

However, this definition does not take into account the current recognition by treatment specialist and researchers that substance abuse is a chronic relapsing disorder in which relapse is not seen as a failure, but as a natural part of the recovery process – an event that can be used constructively to improve the ultimate success of treatment.

Given this caveat, relapse can be better defined as: “an unfolding process in which the resumption of substance use is the last event in a long series of maladaptive responses to internal or external stressors or stimuli.”

What is Relapse Prevention?

The vast majority of recovering persons admit they are addicted and want to change their lives in ways that will keep them off of substances. The problem is, they do not know how to cope with the constant threats to recovery. The essence of relapse prevention, then, is helping them meet the challenges of the drug-free lifestyle during and after treatment. Ultimately, recovering persons must be prepared to manage on their own. They must learn a program of self-management to cope with alcohol and drug cravings and social pressures to use drugs.

Recovering persons must become integrated in a new social network and learn to find pleasure in drug-free activities. They must find new ways of responding to emotional stress and physical pain. It must develop a new way of life. Relapse prevention teaches them how to make needed lifestyle changes, and how to it down to five a and handle such things as high risk situations, cravings, and social pressures.

Relapse prevention is a set of strategies aimed at meeting the challenges recovering persons face in maintaining abstinence upon returning to their everyday lives.

Relapse prevention approaches fall into several categories:

  • Social Support
  • Lifestyle Change
  • Cognitive and Behavioral
  • Pharmacological
  • Combinations of the above and other approaches 

Click here for information on NIDA’s Two Proven & Effective Relapse Prevention Approaches.

What is the theory underlying Relapse Prevention?

G. Alan Marlatt developed and researched a model of the relapse process is very useful in understanding relapse and relapse prevention. This model focuses on the events surrounding initial drug use (beginning when a client is exposed to a high risk situation that threatens relapse) during a period of abstinence (Marlatt and Gordon) 1985).