Why Is Relapse Prevention Important?

Recovery is more than not using drugs and alcohol. The first step in treatment is stopping drug and alcohol use. The next step is not starting again. This is very important. This process is called relapse prevention.

What Is Relapse?

Relapse means going back to substance use and to all the behaviours that come with it. Often the behaviours return before the substance use. The behaviours can be an early warning of relapse. Learning to recognize the beginning of a relapse can help people in recovery stop the process before they start using again.

What Are Addictive Behaviours?

The things people do as part of abusing drugs or alcohol are called addictive behaviours. Often these are things that people who are addicted do to get drugs or alcohol, to cover up substance abuse, or as part of abusing. Lying, stealing, being unreliable, and acting compulsively are types of addictive behaviours. When these behaviours reappear, people in recovery should be alerted that relapse will soon follow if they do not take action.

What Is Addictive Thinking?

Addictive thinking means having thoughts that make substance use seem OK. (In 12-Step programs this is known as “stinking thinking”).

Some examples of addictive thinking by a person in recovery are the following:

  • I can handle just one drink.
  • If they think I’m using, I might as well.
  • I have worked hard. I need a break.

What Is Emotional Build-up?

Feelings that don’t seem to go away and just keep getting stronger cause emotional buildup. Sometimes the feelings seem unbearable. Some feelings that can build during recovery are boredom, anxiety, sexual frustration, irritability, and depression.

Take Action

The important step is to take action as soon as danger signs appear. Families can help the person in recovery in two ways. First, they can look out for danger signs. Second, they can provide support when their loved one takes the following actions:

  • Calling a counsellor.
  • Calling a friend.
  • Going to a 12-Step or mutual-help support meeting.
  • Contacting a 12-Step sponsor.
  • Meditating or praying.
  • Exercising.
  • Taking a day off.
  • Talking with the family.
  • Scheduling time more rigorously.
  • Taking time to write about feelings during recovery.

Relapse Justifications

Once people decide not to use drugs anymore, how do they end up using again? Do relapses happen completely by accident? Or are there warning signs and ways to avoid relapse?

Relapse justification is a process that happens in people’s minds. People may have decided to stop using, but their brains are still healing and still feel the need for the substances. Addicted brains invent excuses that allow people in recovery to edge close enough to relapse situations that accidents can happen. Clients may remember times when they intended to stay substance-free but invented justifications for using. Then, before they knew it, they had used again.

Family members or loved ones can probably recall times when they resolved to change their behaviour (e.g., stop eating desserts or stop swearing) but then thought of reasons why it was okay to go back on their resolution.

Looking at the examples below will help family members understand the types of justifications invented by the addicted brain of a person in recovery. If family members notice these justifications, a relapse may not be far behind.

Someone Else’s Fault

Addicted brains can convince people in recovery that they have no choice but to use. These justifications might sound like the following:

  • An old friend called, and we decided to get together.
  • My partner started using again.
  • I had friends come for dinner, and they brought me some wine.
  • I was in a bar, and someone offered me a beer.

Catastrophic Events

Sometimes, people in recovery have one unexpected, major event that they feel will give them an excuse to use. This is a kind of safety hatch, reserved for emergencies. These justifications may take the following forms:

  • My spouse left me. There’s no reason to stay clean.
  • I just got injured. It’s ruined all of my plans. I might as well use.
  • I just lost my job. Why not use?
  • There was a death in the family. I can’t get through this without using.

For a Specific Purpose

Sometimes people in recovery convince themselves that using drugs or alcohol is the only way to accomplish something. Here are examples of this type of relapse justification:

  • I’m gaining weight and need stimulants to control my weight.
  • I’m out of energy. I’ll function better if I use.
  • I need drugs to meet people more easily.
  • I can’t enjoy sex without using.

Depression, Anger, Loneliness, and Fear

Feeling depressed, angry, lonely, or afraid can make using seem like a good idea. Here are examples of how emotions can be used as justifications for using:

  • I’m depressed. What difference does it make whether I use?
  • When I get mad enough, I can’t control what I do.
  • I’m scared. I know if I use, the feeling will go away.
  • If my partner thinks I’ve used, I might as well use.

Substance Dependence Is Cured

People in recovery sometimes convince themselves that they could use just once or use just a little. These justifications might sound like the following:

  • I’m back in control. I’ll be able to stop when I want to.
  • I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll only use small amounts and only once in a while.
  • This substance was not my problem—stimulants were. So I can use this and not relapse.

Testing Yourself

It’s very easy to forget that being smart, not being strong, is the key to staying abstinent. When people in recovery forget to be smart, they sometimes try to prove that they are stronger than drugs. They justify this decision with the following thoughts:

  • I’m strong enough to be around it now.
  • I want to see whether I can say “no” to drinking and using.
  • I want to see whether I can be around my old friends.
  • I want to see how the high feels now that I’ve stopped using.


On special occasions, people often think it is okay to make an exception to abstinence. They feel that the regular guidelines for recovery can be suspended for a time. Beware of the following relapse justifications:

  • I’m feeling pretty good. One time won’t hurt.
  • We’re on vacation. I’ll go back to not using when we get home.
  • I’m doing so well. Things are going great. I owe myself a reward.
  • This is such a special event that I want to celebrate.

If you feel you would like to discuss and understand a little more about Eden we recommend you phone the manager on duty, or one of the Eden Counsellors:
Office Hours – +27 11 244 9916
24 Hour Helpline – +27 63 582 4314

The Effects of drug abuse

Effects of drug abuse