Relapse Coping Mechanisms in Addiction Recovery

The most important thing to remember about the recovery journey is that the process is not linear.

It is entirely natural (and actually quite normal) for it to feel like things are up and down, and sometimes to feel more in control than at other times.

That’s not just the nature of addiction recovery, but the nature of being human.

We all encounter stressful situations, tricky circumstances or negative feelings – the question is, how do we make sure we keep them under control in order for us to keep our long-term sobriety on track?

This page will give you some information on what relapse is, what may increase the risk of relapse, and how to develop your own relapse prevention plan with a variety of recommendations for healthy coping mechanisms you can use when you need them.

What is Relapse?

Woman exhausted

Relapse refers to a lapse in recovery.

In the context of a substance use disorder, this means a period of returning to using an addictive substance after previously stopping.

For example, if you have previously sought treatment for alcohol addiction, and then begin drinking heavily later down the line, this is known as a relapse.

Relapse isn’t something to be ashamed of.

In fact, it’s actually very rare for someone to start and finish a treatment program without a wobble or two before the end.

What matters is not if or when you may begin to find things getting a little difficult, but what you do to help yourself manage it.

Those things that you do to help yourself cope in difficult times are known as relapse coping mechanisms or skills for relapse prevention.

What Causes Relapse?

Binge drinking

It can be helpful to identify what kinds of triggers may increase your relapse risk to strengthen your possibility of being able to act appropriately when and where you can.

For most people, relapse is caused by external triggers.

External triggers are things that happen around us or to us and are usually things that we can’t really control, such as difficult life events, big changes or stresses.

Some of the most common events and/or situations that can lead to relapse include:

  • Struggling to manage withdrawal symptoms
  • Stress
  • An increase in difficult emotions
  • Tension or conflict in relationships, including divorce
  • Tension or pressure at work
  • Tension or pressure at school or university
  • Big social events or celebrations
  • Encountering difficult places such as pubs, bars, restaurants or hangouts of people who also struggle with addiction
  • Spending time with people currently in active addiction (people who are still drinking heavily or using substances)
  • Feeling bored, isolated or lonely
  • Feeling overconfident in your ability to abstain – starting to use before you feel in control again
  • An exception mentality: feeling that you can handle drinking or using just this once

How Common is Relapse?

Holding hands

Unfortunately, relapse is a common occurrence.

Between 40 and 60% of people in recovery from addiction will experience a relapse at some point in their lives.

This means that relapse isn’t something to be ashamed of – rather, it’s something that often punctuates successful recovery for many people.

It is also possible to relapse more than once.

This high occurrence of relapse suggests that developing skills for relapse prevention is a pivotal part of any addiction treatment to take steps against potential future relapse.

The Stages of Relapse

A group of men in therapy

Psychologists have suggested that, just like recovery, relapse doesn’t just happen overnight.

Rather, it is something that happens gradually, usually in stages.

Relapse doesn’t happen when you start to use drugs or begin drinking, but actually refers to the thoughts and feelings that can be experienced for a long time (sometimes even weeks or months) beforehand.

The three stages of relapse are:

  1. Emotional Relapse
  2. Mental Relapse
  3. Physical Relapse

Person looking sad

1. Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse is emotional relapse.

This is when you may start to struggle with difficult emotions and begin to have difficulty managing them.

In this stage, people are not usually thinking about substances, being quite aware of the progress they have made during the recovery process.

Instead, they are usually quite adamant that they do not want to return to drinking or taking drugs.

However, the intensity of managing difficult emotions can begin to almost set people up for relapse down the road.

Some signs that you may be in the emotional relapse stage include:

  • Struggling to talk about feelings
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Not attending meetings or treatment
  • Struggling with sleeping
  • Struggling with eating
  • Generally not looking after yourself

Typically, signs of emotional relapse can look very similar to symptoms of psychological distress associated with different kinds of mental health issues.

Woman looking sad

2. Mental Relapse

The second stage of relapse is mental relapse.

If you exist in a state of emotional relapse for a long time, it can become very difficult to keep going.

It can breed feelings of disillusionment, apathy, anger, or failure.

At this, you may begin to start thinking about using.

There will be a bit of a fight in your head, almost like the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other that we frequently see in cartoons and films.

There will be a part of you that is aware of the risk of relapse and what this might mean for a spiral in your substance use disorder, whilst another part is trying to find a way to manage the difficult thoughts and feelings.

During this period, some signs of relapse you might encounter include:

  • Experience cravings for substances
  • Feel drawn towards places or people linked with substances
  • Begin to play down the impact substance use has had on you in the past
  • Looking for opportunities to use substances

3. Physical Relapse

The third and final stage is physical relapse.

This is when people begin to use again and risk re-establishing addictive behaviour.

Examples of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Alcohol & gambling

The relapse process doesn’t always involve the use of substances.

In ongoing recovery, it is also possible to establish new behaviours and methods of coping that can also be maladaptive or unhealthy.

Some examples of unhealthy coping skills that can be developed during life in recovery include:

It can be the case that in tackling one behaviour, we sometimes pick up others.

This means that skills for relapse prevention can help us not just in staying sober, but in limiting the risk of developing new behaviours that can be potentially harmful.

Relapse Coping Mechanisms

Two men talking at a table

Now we know a little about the stages of relapse, and how to identify emotional relapse and mental relapse in advance, what do we do if we feel things are starting to slip?

There are ten key relapse prevention skills that can help you to manage things safely.

There are:

  1. Avoid your triggers
  2. Reach out for help when you need it
  3. Build a support network
  4. Check in with yourself daily
  5. Engage with Aftercare services
  6. Give back & help others
  7. Learn relaxation skills
  8. Mindfulness practice
  9. Nurture a new hobby or interest
  10. Exercise and keep yourself moving

Avoid Your Triggers


One of the best ways to avoid relapse is by trying to establish what your relapse triggers are.

Identifying potential triggers gives you the upper hand, as it allows you to be aware of what may be difficult for you and allow you to plan around them.

Knowing your triggers is a foundation of recovery – you will be able to able to discuss these with your treatment provider, addiction specialists, or during self-help groups such as alcoholics anonymous in order to get a sense of what your relapse prevention strategy might look like.

There are two kinds of triggers – external triggers and internal triggers.

1. External Triggers for Relapse

External triggers are the things that happen around us.

Some examples of these include:

2. Internal Triggers for Relapse

Internal triggers, however, are not to do with the world around us.

They are to do with our internal worlds.

Common triggers that are classed as internal include:

  • High-stress situations
  • Increased anxiety or low mood
  • Feeling physically unwell or sick
  • Withdrawing and feeling lonely
  • Not eating well

One way you can identify your dangerous triggers is by thinking about things you may have been doing, places you might have been visiting and people you may have been spending time with when your substance abuse spiralled.

You can also start to think about how you may have been feeling and thinking.

What kind of thoughts did you have when things were tricky? How were you feeling? What kind of behaviours did you do?

You can almost use these as warning signs that if any of these things reoccur during the process of recovery, there may be a risk of relapse.

Reach out For Help When You Need It


Research has suggested that there is a strong link between isolation and addiction to drugs and alcohol, as well as between loneliness and mental health disorders in general.

This is because, as people, we are naturally social creatures, and community is crucial to our mental health and well-being.

This is never more true than when we are struggling or in crisis.

The most important thing to do if you feel yourself in the emotional and mental relapse stages is to talk.

You might speak to professionals, or to family members or friends – but the most important thing is that you do speak to someone.

It can be helpful to have a small list of people that you can contact if things get tough.

Having their names and contact details at hand can make this feel a lot less overwhelming in the heat of the moment.

Build a Support Network

Group Therapy

Connected to the previous positive coping skill is the idea of building a support network.

This can be achieved in many different ways, from staying in touch with like-minded people who are also in recovery, attending self-help meetings, having regular check-ins with health professionals, or keeping in frequent touch with family and friends.

No matter what your support network looks like, your connections can be one of the most powerful tools at any stage of recovery.

Check-in With Yourself Daily

Man with pen

Whilst talking to others is a very valuable tool, we can’t forget the usefulness of taking the time to check in with ourselves.

You can do this in many ways, including:

  • Keeping a daily journal
  • Ranking your mood on a scale of 1 – 10
  • Practising gratitude (making a note of 1-3 things you are grateful for every day)

This doesn’t have to be a formal process where you sit down and write for hours, although you can do that if it is helpful.

For other people, just asking yourself a few questions can be a good way to check in.

You could try asking yourself:

  • When did I last shower?
  • When did I last have a meal?
  • When did I last leave the house?
  • When did I last see a friend or family member?

These questions can help us notice when our self-care might be slipping and allow us to do things that we might not have noticed have started to fall off the radar.

Engaging With Aftercare

Support Group

Any good addiction treatment plan will come with a menu of aftercare options.

This means that you will have the opportunity to continue to engage with different forms of treatment for alcohol or drug addiction after formal support or inpatient treatment ends.

This is a way to help you get used to living your daily life again, without removing all the forms of support straightaway.

It’s a halfway option to make sure you’re not dealing with this stage of recovery alone, but you are also beginning to put your healthy coping strategies into practice during daily activities.

Some forms of aftercare you might access include:

Give Back & Help Others

Support groups

Many forms of addiction groups and programs, including 12-Step Meetings, emphasise the importance of helping others as an essential step towards recovery.

Helping others can help us in many ways, giving us a sense of purpose, perhaps by giving us a reason to keep busy and get out of the house, and ultimately, to foster a more positive relationship with ourselves.

Addiction can be associated with some very tricky feelings that can lead to us viewing ourselves in a harsh light.

By working to help others and give back, you can start to associate yourself with positive actions and therefore rebuild a positive relationship with yourself, where you are able to clearly identify your values, talents, and good traits in action.

Learn Relaxation Skills

A woman reading a book

For many people, addiction manifests because using drugs and drinking is a way of coping – it can be a kind of self-medicating.

This does mean however that, during substance abuse recovery, we might feel like we’re left without a way to relax.

This means that during your recovery, you may need to relearn ways of relaxing to ensure that you can act on tricky emotions safely.

Everyone is different, and that means that what you may find relaxing may be different to the people around you.

It’s ok to experiment with different techniques – the important part is that whatever you do to relax is safe and does not put yourself or others at risk.

Some common relaxation strategies include:

  • Having a bath
  • Lighting candles
  • Listening to calm music
  • Reading a book
  • Drawing, painting, or making something
  • Going for a walk in nature
  • Making your favourite drink
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Mindfulness Practice

Individual therapy

Mindfulness is becoming a very popular method of relaxation, so much so that is usually part of many different types of therapies.

Mindfulness-based relapse prevention can take many forms.

In general, though, being mindful refers to being in the moment.

Focusing on other things can allow us to take our attention away from difficult thoughts and feelings for a while, and therefore reduce the risk of engaging in harmful behaviours until we calm down.

Some common mindfulness techniques include:

  • Colouring
  • Listing things you can see, touch, smell and taste
  • Focusing on your breathing (deep breathing)
  • Focusing on how your body feels (known in mindfulness practice as a body scan)

Nurture a New Hobby or Interest

Adventure Therapy

We tend to feel more positive when we enjoy what we are doing.

For this reason, engaging in recreational activities or hobbies that excite and interest you can be very beneficial for your mental health and therefore, bolster your recovery success.

Life is busy.

Between working, looking after ourselves and any dependents we may have, it can be difficult to find time for ourselves.

But this time spent doing an activity that you have chosen to do can do wonders, including:

  • Reducing stress levels and promoting feelings of calm
  • Increasing levels of joy
  • Improving social connections through shared activities and interests

A hobby can be anything – a sport, a craft, a musical instrument, a particular kind of cooking – you can take your passion or interest and turn it into a tool to help you during your healing process.

Exercise and Keep Yourself Moving

We’ve all heard that exercise and a healthy diet can help us feel healthier and happier.

This is true for everyone, but especially when we’re struggling with intense feelings.

1. Exercise

Exercise has been shown to release endorphins in the brain.

Endorphins are chemicals that make us feel good.

Researchers have investigated this connection, finding that the endorphin release of exercise can boost mood and lower symptoms of anxiety, depression and anger associated with addiction.

2. Healthy Eating

What we eat is just as important as how we move.

Research suggests that certain foods that can make us feel tired and sluggish, which can make it more difficult to find motivation when we’re already feeling low.

By ensuring that your diet is balanced, you can give yourself the best possible chance of staying energetic and ready to get through the day.

Thinking carefully about what you eat can also be a method of self-care – choosing what to eat shows that you care about what you put in your body, and therefore becomes a good way to practice identifying what substances (like drugs and alcohol) could actually harm us.

Contact Us Today

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Explaining what it feels like to battle with an addiction can feel impossible.

We can feel lonely and trapped, and not know where or who to turn to.

How do we begin to talk about our feelings, where should we go for support, and what are we supposed to say to them?

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we know that addiction is not a choice.

We also know that every individual is different and that it is ok for recovery processes to take as long as they may need.

We also know that everyone struggling with controlling their drinking deserves a helping hand to get back on the right track to sober living.

If you are ready to access support for addiction or believe that a loved one would benefit from beginning formal support with us, we are more than happy to speak with you and learn more about how we can help you with your current situation.

We are a confidential service, and all our contact with you is designed to help offer you relief, peace of mind and genuine opportunities for long-term recovery.

You can contact our team to seek advice and to learn more about the kinds of services we offer.

Call our experts today on 0800 111 4108.