The Three Stages of Relapse - PAX Riverbend Rehab Center

The 3 Stages of Relapse and Tips for Relapse Prevention

man going through the three stages of relapse

Relapse is far too common among people in early recovery. With a relapse rate of 40-60%, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that relapse rates among people suffering from substance use disorder are similar to those of people treated for other chronic illnesses such as asthma or high blood pressure.[1] Relapse doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, there are three stages of relapse that can be identified.

Being able to identify the mental and emotional symptoms that usually come before relapse and learning how to cope with them is essential in recovery. Although many addicts and alcoholics fear relapse, the primary goal of addiction treatment is to help patients prevent relapse. A drug and alcohol rehab center can help you develop a relapse prevention plan, but that plan will be useless unless you know how to implement it.

In order to utilize your relapse prevention plan correctly, you need to understand what the three different stages of relapse are, how to identify them, and what to do to get your recovery back on track.

What Are The Three Stages of Relapse?

Many people believe that relapse happens quickly, however, this usually isn’t the case. Relapse is a process that occurs slowly as a person progresses through three different stages. These stages can be identified as:

  • Emotional relapse
  • Mental relapse
  • Physical relapse

Let’s take a deeper look into the signs and symptoms of each stage and what you can do to prevent a relapse.

Emotional Relapse

If you are in the emotional phase of relapse, you are not yet thinking about using drugs or alcohol. While you may reflect on past substance use from time to time, you are not craving a substance or thinking of ways to use the substance in secret. Instead, emotional relapse refers to the emotions and behaviors that set the foundation for future relapse. Signs and symptoms of emotional relapse include:

  • Mood swings, depression, or anxiety
  • Isolating from friends, family, and sober support
  • Not attending therapy or recovery meetings
  • Being unable to express and cope with one’s emotions in an effective way
  • Having poor self-care or motivation
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating a healthy diet
  • Deflecting attention to other people’s problems rather than one’s own

Tip #1: Practice Self-Care and Other Early Relapse Prevention Techniques

Rather than emotional relapse being a result of a single event, emotional relapse is usually the result of a lack of self-care. If you or someone you know is displaying symptoms of emotional relapse, it’s time to place more time and attention on self-care.

Self-care involves eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and maintaining a quality sleep schedule. It is also about taking care of your mind, as well. This means taking the time to connect with others, destress, and practice healthy habits that benefit your mental health.

Other things you can do include talk to your support group, identify any major changes in your life or your routine, learn about your relapse triggers, and make an extra effort to ask for help, go to meetings, or gain support from trusted peers. If you catch yourself in the earlier stages of relapse, you’ll find it is easier to get back on track simply by taking care of yourself and re-dedicating your efforts toward your recovery.

Mental Relapse

If you fail to identify, manage, and cope with the behaviors and emotions that precede a relapse, you may move onto the second stage of relapse – mental relapse. This is when you will begin bargaining with yourself over whether or not you want to use drugs or alcohol. For example, you may begin craving a drink to soothe your anxiety, but one part of you is telling yourself you shouldn’t do it. This internal conflict will continue if you don’t enact your relapse prevention plan.

It’s normal to have occasional thoughts about using drugs or alcohol if you are in recovery. It becomes abnormal when these thoughts become more like obsessions that take up a lot of space in your mind. To identify a mental relapse, consider the following signs and symptoms:

  • Having cravings (intense desires or urges) to use drugs and/or alcohol
  • Frequently thinking about past drug or alcohol use and the people and places associated with it
  • Thinking of ways you could use drugs or alcohol without getting caught
  • Spending time with or talking to friends who abuse substances
  • Fantasizing about using drugs or alcohol or planning your relapse
  • Glamorizing or making jokes about past substance abuse

Tip #2: Learn How to Cope With Drug and Alcohol Cravings

One of the best ways to cope with cravings is to talk to your support group about the way you feel. More than likely, one of your supports has been in your shoes and they know how you feel. They also know how to overcome those cravings and stay sober. By relating to someone who understands and expressing your thoughts and emotions freely, you can reduce the intensity of your cravings.

Finding a reliable sober support system, developing communication skills, and learning to manage cravings is vital. If your thoughts and urges persist beyond the aid of which your support group can offer, it may be time to speak to a professional substance abuse counselor about getting help.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the final stage of relapse that occurs when you take a drink or a drug. This happens if you fail to address the signs and symptoms of the previous stages of relapse. In some cases, a person will get intoxicated one time and slowly begin using more and more. In other cases, people will have a full-blown relapse where they return back to the cycle of daily substance use immediately. Everyone is different.

Signs and symptoms of a physical relapse include:

  • Not talking to sober supports or lying to them
  • Openly using drugs and alcohol
  • Calling in sick to work, ignoring obligations, and changes in schedule
  • Mood swings and emotional shifts
  • Physical signs of intoxication like slurred speech, confusion, fatigue, or talkativeness

Tip #3: Ask for Help Before You Pick Up a Drink or a Drug

The goal is to ask for help before you use drugs and/or alcohol. If you fail to ask for help during the emotional and mental stages of addiction relapse, physical relapse is almost inevitable. Also, it’s important to recognize that, for some people, relapse is simply a part of the recovery journey. If you do relapse, don’t beat yourself up. Simply get honest about your relapse, be open-minded to learning new ways to cope, and never be afraid to ask for the help you need.

Emotional Relapse

Mental Relapse

Physical Relapse

Get Help With Relapse Prevention Today

Even though relapse is normal and pretty common, it doesn’t have to be a part of your story. At PAX Riverbend Rehab Center, our outpatient rehab programs are dedicated to teaching you or your loved one relapse prevention planning, coping skills, and relaxation strategies so you can attain long-term sobriety. You don’t have to walk this journey alone – call today to get help for addiction.



Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.