What Is Relapse?
The answer to this question actually lies in the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) definition of relapse. They assert that “Relapse is the return to drug use after an attempt to stop. Relapse indicates the need for more or different treatment.” Though it may be tempting to admit defeat, the necessity for treatment is as present as ever.
Relapse is, unfortunately quite common, and many people may actually experience one or more instances of relapse, as noted by NIDA, as they’re building their recovery. Relapsing does not signify failure, nor does it mean that sobriety is an unobtainable goal. Fortunately, it also does not mean that you are back to square one—though a person has returned to his or her drug use, this time they do carry a greater wealth of experience, perspective, and coping skills as gained from their previous treatment, which can be utilized again as a foundation to the next leg of their recovery journey. However, this return to using may signify the need for a different, or more enhanced, mode of treatment.
Relapse can happen for many reasons, including:
- Boredom or loneliness
- Undue amounts of stress
- Becoming overly comfortable and lax in your recovery
- The continued presence of cravings
- The continued presence or reintroduction of triggers, including people or events
- A failure to focus on important aspects of self-care
- Lack of a support network
- Failure to attend meetings
- Co-occurring disorders
- Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
These are only a limited portrayal of circumstances which may encourage a person to again use alcohol or drugs, however, these factors are important elements to consider as you look to treatment options and consider the best approach.
Understanding How An Addiction Impacts A Person
Perhaps in order to better understand relapse and the need for treatment, we need to further examine the role, and definition, of addiction within a person’s life. As explained by NIDA, “Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” What exactly does this mean? When a person is addicted, the addictive substance imposes a chemical burden on their brain’s neurochemistry, in a manner that actually changes the way the brain functions. This change becomes apparent in changes to a person’s thoughts and behaviors, widely altering most every facet of their life.
In fact, NIDA writes that “Brain-imaging studies from people addicted to drugs show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical for judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavior control.” The sad truth is that some of the very elements that are needed to reduce or cease a person’s drug use are some of the very things that are compromised by drug abuse. These changes are in part, what may lead to relapse. Chronic drug use may leave lingering changes within a person’s brain.
An addiction can also create or aggravate concerns regarding co-occurring disorders, which if not treated properly, can increase the risk of relapse down the road, examples include anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, some treatment programs do not offer treatment for these dual diagnosis concerns, thus, should your loved one struggle with a co-occurring disorder like a borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder, take care to research and choose a program that can address these needs.
Putting It In Perspective
Addiction is a disease, thus it should be treated as such. Unfortunately, some individuals fail to embrace this perspective, instead of looking at addiction and treatment in a way that is steeped with stigma. This perception may become further enforced or skewed if a person relapses. This is both an unfounded and very harmful perspective.
Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of NIDA offers the following powerful words on this, asserting “If we embrace the concept of addiction as a chronic disease in which drugs have disrupted the most fundamental brain circuits that enable us to do something that we take for granted—make a decision and follow it through—we will be able to decrease the stigma.” It is by decreasing this narrow-minded view and instead of looking at and treating addiction like other diseases, that we can better provide our loved ones with prompt, thorough and compassionate treatment.
Consider this—if your loved one was in recovery from anorexia, and relapsed, would you sit idly by and allow them to continue withholding food from themselves, instead of thinking that they did not require further treatment? Or this—if you had a family member who was in remission from cancer, would you negate the importance of more treatment, should they encounter cancer again? One would hope that in both cases, the answer would be “no.” Why then is it a question of seeking treatment a second time? There shouldn’t be.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse speaks of this correlation, stating that “Relapse rates are similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors. For the addicted patient, lapses back to drug use indicate that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted, or that alternate treatment is needed.”
Sometimes a person may have not received the form, length or intensity of treatment the first time, that their situation required. Oftentimes, a person who chooses outpatient treatment may do so for more for logistical concerns (finances, ability to continue within their day-to-day life and/or the proximity to home), without extensively thinking of what treatment the addiction merits. While outpatient treatment may be sufficient for low to moderate risks, individuals affronted with more intense or severe concerns may require inpatient treatment.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse speaks of this, and the possible need of continued treatment in the case of relapse, noting “Because drug addiction is typically a chronic disorder characterized by occasional relapses, short-term, one-time treatment is usually not sufficient. For many, treatment is a long-term process that involves multiple interventions and regular monitoring.” This is to say, that there is a likelihood of relapse, and should it occur, a person may require their loved ones intercede on their behalf with support and direction to ensure that their relapsed state is quickly and efficiently addressed, in a comprehensive way. Even though relapse does not mean a person has failed, the individual may still struggle with feelings of shame or inadequacy—your love and support can make a vast difference in helping them to embrace a more optimistic state and again seek treatment.
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Break The Cycle And Protect Your Loved One
Relapse is not without risk, and the sooner you enroll your loved one in treatment, the sooner these dangers are averted. When a person relapses or continues to remain in this state, they may actually be jeopardizing their life. According to NIDA, relapsing can increase the odds of an overdose, including one which is fatal. This is because as a person becomes abstinent from their drug of abuse, their tolerance drops. Far too often when a person relapses, they will return to drug abuse by using the same amount they previously used, an amount that exceeds their tolerance.
Individuals that have relapsed from recovery from alcohol addiction face specific concerns. If left unchecked, relapse may begin a cycle that has potentially devastating results. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism explains that “Repeated bouts of heavy drinking interspersed with attempts at abstinence (i.e., withdrawal) may result in sensitization of withdrawal symptoms, especially symptoms that contribute to a negative emotional state. This, in turn, can lead to enhanced vulnerability to relapse as well as favor perpetuation of excessive drinking.” What this means, is that if a person does not receive treatment, and instead continues to drink heavily, fostering their dependence, they are more apt to experience heightened symptoms of withdrawal, a return to heavy drinking levels and an increased risk of future relapse, in a way that begets a harmful pattern.
What Are The Benefits Of Attending Rehab Again?
Namely increased odds of sobriety, but beyond this, there are many positives to attending treatment again. A good rehab program should offer multi-level, intensive care that integrates your unique needs and situation into an individualized care model. Though it may be daunting to start the process over again, choosing a new program may allow access to alternative and enhanced treatment modalities that the individual was not privy to the first time. These may include: a renewed and vested interest in sobriety, learning further coping strategies for addiction, mindfulness practices, opportunities to nurture and cultivate acceptance, enhanced interpersonal skills, peer support, and family therapy and support.
With concerns of co-occurring disorders, enrolling your loved one in a treatment facility that is adept at addressing your concerns, such as Turning Point, will allow them critical access to staff who understands the importance of these factors. Within these programs, your loved one will learn ways to prevent relapse linked to co-occurring disorders. Lastly, a thorough treatment program will pay specific attention to concerns of relapse by administering relapse prevention and providing continued aftercare support.
We Can Help You Aid Your Loved One In Beginning The Next Chapter In Their Recovery
We understand that there are so many things on your mind at this time. It can be difficult to look at everything you and your loved one are contending with while striving towards making a sound decision. Because of this, Turning Point offers caring support and guidance. Whether you have a loved one who has already relapsed, or if you’re concerned that they are headed that way—we can help. Contact us today for more information.
- National Institute on Drug Addiction — Understanding Drug Use and Addiction
- National Institute on Drug Addiction — The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics
- National Institute on Drug Addiction — Addiction Is a Disease of Free Will
- National Institute on Drug Addiction — What is drug addiction treatment?
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism — Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, and Relapse