Alcohol Relapse: Definition, Signs, & Prevention

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Alcohol relapse is a common and expected part of the recovery process, with up to six in ten of those in recovery from alcohol use disorder relapsing at least once.

Addiction is recognized as a chronic and relapsing condition, with the alcohol relapse rate similar to that of chronic diseases like diabetes. Relapse can be challenging for both the person in recovery and their family members. However, alcoholic relapse does not signify treatment failure or the impossibility of achieving sobriety.

If you have concerns about yourself or a loved one potentially re-engaging with alcohol abuse, it is helpful to develop an awareness of the most common warning signs of relapse. There are three distinct stages of relapse: emotional relapse, mental relapsing, and physical alcoholism relapse. Each stage presents different indicators of potential relapse. Being attentive to these warning signs can empower you to take preventive measures and avoid a drug relapse before it occurs.

What is Alcohol Relapse?

Alcohol relapse refers to the resumption of alcohol use or heavy drinking after a period of abstinence or sobriety. It’s an expected and common part of the recovery process for individuals with alcohol use disorder (the clinical term for alcoholism). Relapse can occur at various stages of recovery and is often accompanied by emotional and physical challenges. Understanding what constitutes a relapse is crucial for individuals and their support networks.

What Percentage of Alcoholics Relapse?

The percentage of alcoholics who experience relapse varies and is influenced by factors such as the severity of alcoholism, the effectiveness of treatment, and the individual’s support system. Research suggests that approximately 40 to 60% of individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorder will experience at least one relapse during their journey, highlighting the chronic and relapsing nature of addiction.

Signs of Alcohol Relapse

Alcohol relapse can manifest through a variety of emotional, behavioral, and physical signs. Recognizing these signs early can help inform relapse prevention and timely intervention. Keep in mind that while these signs may be indicative of a potential relapse, they don’t guarantee that a relapse is inevitable. Common signs include:

  • Increased cravings: One of the earliest alcohol relapse symptoms can be a resurgence of intense cravings for alcohol. These cravings may become overpowering, making it challenging for the individual to resist the urge to drink.
  • Behavioral changes: Watch for pronounced shifts in behavior – mood swings, increased irritability, or sudden secrecy about activities. The person may become defensive when questioned about their actions.
  • Emotional distress: Relapse can be triggered by emotional distress, such as sadness, anxiety, depression, or frustration. An individual may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with these overwhelming emotions.
  • Social isolation: If the person begins withdrawing from social activities, distancing themselves from support networks, and isolating from friends and family, it could be a sign of impending relapse.
  • Neglecting responsibilities: Relapse may lead to a decline in fulfilling personal, work, or family responsibilities. This neglect can be an indicator of alcohol use resuming.
  • Returning to old habits: Relapse may involve a return to old habits and routines associated with drinking, such as visiting familiar bars, engaging with former drinking buddies, or purchasing alcohol.
  • Justification and denial: Individuals at risk of relapse may engage in rationalization or denial about their alcohol use. They may downplay the significance of their actions, making excuses for relapse.
  • Physical symptoms: Physical signs may include the smell of alcohol on their breath, bloodshot eyes, or unsteady coordination. These signs become more apparent in the later stages of relapse.
  • Disregard for consequences: Relapse often involves a disregard for the negative consequences of drinking, such as legal problems, health issues, or strained relationships. The individual may minimize these consequences.
  • Reconnecting with enablers: Returning to social circles or relationships that enable or encourage alcohol use is a concerning sign. These connections can exert pressure and influence on the individual.
  • Avoiding accountability: Those at risk of relapse may avoid accountability for their drinking, refusing to acknowledge their actions or make amends.

A manifestation of these signs does not guarantee a relapse will occur. That said, if you or someone that you know exhibits multiple signs or a concerning change in behavior, it is advisable to take action promptly. Encourage open communication, offer support, and consider involving a healthcare professional, therapist, or addiction specialist to assess the situation and provide guidance on relapse prevention strategies. Timely intervention can make a significant difference in preventing a full relapse and supporting the individual on their path to recovery.

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What to Do When an Alcoholic Relapses

Experiencing an alcoholic relapse can be a challenging and emotional time for both the person in recovery and their loved ones. Knowing how to respond effectively is crucial. Maintain a calm and non-judgmental attitude. The person may already be feeling shame and guilt, so offering support and understanding can help alleviate these feelings.

Create a safe space for the individual to talk about their relapse. Encourage them to share their feelings, triggers, and experiences without fear of judgment. Refrain from blaming or criticizing the person for the relapse. Addiction is a complex condition, and relapse is often a part of the recovery process.

Let the individual know that you are there to support them in their journey to recovery. Reassure them that one setback does not define their ability to achieve sobriety.

Encourage the person to seek professional help or return to their treatment plan if necessary. A healthcare provider or therapist can help assess the situation and adjust the treatment approach if needed.

Work together to identify the triggers or stressors that contributed to the relapse. Understanding these factors can help develop strategies for relapse prevention.

What to Say

Effective communication is crucial when addressing an alcoholic relapse. Choosing the right words and approach can make a significant difference in how the individual responds. Here are some guidelines on what to say:

  • Express empathy: Begin by expressing your understanding of their struggle and the challenges of recovery. Let them know that you care and are there to support them.
  • Avoid judgment: Refrain from passing judgment or making accusatory statements. Focus on a compassionate and non-blaming tone.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Encourage the person to share their thoughts and feelings by asking open-ended questions. This can promote dialogue and self-reflection.
  • Reiterate your belief in their recovery: Express your belief in their ability to overcome challenges and maintain sobriety. Encourage their self-confidence.
  • Offer concrete help: If appropriate, offer specific ways you can assist, such as helping them find treatment options or attending support group meetings together.
  • Listen actively: Active listening involves giving the person your full attention and validating their experiences. Avoid interrupting and be patient.
  • Set boundaries: If the relapse has resulted in harmful behaviors or consequences, it may be necessary to set boundaries to protect both parties. Ensure that these boundaries are communicated respectfully.
  • Avoid enabling: Be cautious not to enable the person’s alcohol use. While offering support, avoid participating in or enabling destructive behaviors.

Remember that every individual’s response to a relapse is unique, and the path to recovery is personal. Encourage the person to seek professional help and engage in their recovery journey actively. By approaching the situation with compassion, empathy, and effective communication, you can play a pivotal role in helping them get back on track and work toward lasting sobriety.

Alcohol Relapse Prevention Tips

Preventing alcohol relapse is a primary goal for individuals in recovery. While relapse is a common part of the journey, it’s possible to minimize the risk and maintain long-term sobriety through proactive strategies and lifestyle adjustments. 

Build a strong support network

Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, and individuals who understand your journey. Lean on them during challenging times.

Engage in aftercare

Continue your engagement in aftercare programs, such as outpatient therapy, support groups like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), and counseling. These resources offer ongoing support and guidance.

Cultivate coping skills

Develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress, emotions, and triggers without turning to alcohol. This may include mindfulness, deep breathing, exercise, or journaling.

Identify and avoid triggers

Be aware of your personal triggers for alcohol use and take proactive steps to avoid or manage them effectively. This may involve changing routines, environments, or social circles.

Set realistic goals

Set achievable and realistic goals for your recovery journey. Avoid putting undue pressure on yourself to be perfect, as setbacks can occur.

Practice self-care

Prioritize self-care by focusing on physical health, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet. A healthy lifestyle contributes to overall well-being and resilience.

Seek professional help

If you find yourself struggling with cravings or emotional distress, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a healthcare provider, therapist, or addiction specialist.

Plan for high-risk situations

Develop a plan for high-risk situations that may arise, such as holidays or celebrations. Have strategies in place to navigate these events without relapsing.

Stay accountable

Stay accountable for your actions by maintaining regular check-ins with a sponsor, counselor, or support group. Accountability fosters commitment to recovery.

Learn from relapses

If you do experience a relapse, use it as an opportunity for self-reflection and learning. Identify what led to the relapse and adjust your strategies accordingly.

Celebrate milestones

Acknowledge and celebrate your milestones in recovery, whether they are days, months, or years of sobriety. It reinforces your commitment and progress.

Avoid overconfidence

Stay vigilant and avoid overconfidence. Complacency can be a risk factor for relapse, so continue to prioritize your recovery efforts.

Practice patience

Recovery is a lifelong journey. Be patient with yourself and understand that setbacks are a part of the process. Focus on the progress you’ve made.

Address underlying issues

If you have co-occurring mental health issues, ensure that they are adequately addressed and treated. Treating underlying issues can reduce the risk of relapse.

Remember that relapse does not define your recovery. It’s an opportunity for growth and renewed commitment to your sobriety. By implementing these prevention tips and seeking support when needed, you can significantly reduce the risk of relapse and work toward a healthier, alcohol-free life.

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Get Alcohol Addiction Treatment at Ohio Community Health

If you have been unable to avoid relapse, we can help you get your recovery back on track at Ohio Community Health. We specialize in treating alcohol addiction in an outpatient setting at our treatment facility located in Cincinnati, OH.

For those who require a intensive relapse recovery treatment, engage with our IOP (intensive outpatient programs). IOP allows you to remain anchored to your daily commitments while addressing the issues that led to relapse derailing your recovery.

Call admissions today at 877-679-2132 and we can help you double down on sobriety rather than allowing relapse to further disrupt your recovery journey.

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn