Does Relapse Mean Failure?

By Stephanie Thomas

Anxious man at workWe all set out with good intentions, don’t we? To shed a few pounds, spend our money wisely or, perhaps in some cases, to recover from addiction. In those early days, we wake up refreshed and ready to face temptation, eager to fight our demons and prepared to win. And for a time, we do.

But then …

The story that follows is different for each of us. For folks wrestling with the aftermath of an addiction relapse, the story may be especially discouraging. You might think you blew your one and only chance.

Oh, how happy we are to call you wrong! As you’ll read below, recovery doesn’t often follow the same direct, easy path. Instead, the road to recovery is rife with twist and turns, hills and valleys. Your job isn’t to find immediate healing — it is to keep moving forward.

Relapse Happens

Sometimes research delivers a tough blow, and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to the statistics on addiction relapse. Studies show that between 70 and 90 percent of people trying to overcome substance abuse will falter in one way or another.1 What gives?

As Psychology Today explains, initially shedding an addiction through detox is much easier than shedding it for good.1 And it makes sense, right? You move from the focused attention on getting clean to spreading your attention all around — now you are trying to stay clean and juggle other concerns, such as work a job and spend time with your family, among many other things.

What’s more, science gives us an even better understanding of why relapse occurs.

What Does Science Say About the Reality of Relapse?

Let’s make a big assumption: Users who leave drugs or alcohol behind only to return again must do so because it feels good. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? But this assumption only gets us halfway to the root of the problem.

Addiction is a beast that not only touches the body but also, more importantly, the brain. Unfortunately, the markings of substance abuse don’t leave when the substance does. Instead, they create lasting and remarkable change — change that bares its teeth and holds up two large fists to the normal routines of daily life. National Geographic’s exposition on the addicted brain puts it this way: “By taking advantage of the brain’s marvelous plasticity, addiction remolds neural circuits to assign supreme value to cocaine or heroin or gin, at the expense of other interests such as health, work, family or life itself.” 2 You’re up against a pretty powerful enemy.

Still, there is another truth at work: Recovery is possible. In fact, there are over 23 million American adults in recovery today. That means there are 23 million other humans who understand where you are, where you’ve been and where you are headed. So be encouraged, and keep moving in that direction.

Relapse Does Not Equal Failure

There is an ancient proverb that says, “He that stumbles and falls not quite, gains a step.” 5 During relapse, many users discover the very thing they must avoid in order to steady their feet.1

TED speaker Astro Teller echoes this idea by viewing what we think of as failure instead as an opportunity to learn. And, as he says, if we will just choose to walk away from our mishaps with new knowledge in hand, we won’t give shame time to set in.6 In other words, you can become weighed down with guilt or move forward with a greater plan and purpose.

Relapse Happens, but it Doesn’t Have to Happen (or Happen Again) to You

Regardless of your history with addiction and relapse, your future can be a clean one. Follow the tips below for preventing another relapse:

  1. Face the facts. Based on the science we talked about before, addiction is comparable to other long-term diseases like diabetes in that there is no real magic potion for healing. This means you’ll “be at risk for relapse for years and possibly for [your] whole [life].”7 Instead of letting this information get you down, you can allow it make you more aware. You can remember that on both bad days and, yes, even good, your brain and your body are susceptible.
  2. Recognize that relapse is a gradual process. Relapse doesn’t occur the moment you take that first sip, but in all the moments leading up to it. Studies show that it can take days, weeks or even months for a person to slide slowly into relapse, following a pattern of three stages: emotional relapse, mental relapse and physical relapse.8 With this knowledge, you can reach out for help at the first signs of a coming slip.
  3. Identify your triggers. Addiction wreaks havoc on your brain. This we know. Not only does it make everything about normal life seem dull, but it also messes with your memory and decision-making skills.1 So when you encounter something familiar from your days when you were using, your brain both recognizes and returns to those earlier, darker days. Psychologists suggest recovering addicts look out for both external triggers — which are easier to spot — and internal triggers, which are a bit trickier. External triggers include your basic nouns: people, places and things, as well as situations, like holiday gatherings. Internal triggers revolve around feelings but can run the gamut between negative, normal and positive feelings.9 That’s why it’s imperative that you know yourself.
  4. Create new triggers. Believe it or not, the brain can be your friend. By moving forward in recovery, you develop new, positive cues that may ultimately override the damage drugs or alcohol left behind1 and you can even experience joy.

One course of therapy encourages patients to create new triggers by reacting to cravings in one of the following ways: distraction through a hobby, movie, exercise or a meal out; talking with a friend, family member or counselor; sitting with the urge until it passes; and confronting your thoughts with the hope of changing them.10

Above all, you can continue to reach out for help and guidance on your way to recovery. If you or your loved one experiences a relapse or needs help to prevent one, call us today.


1 Sack, David. “Why Relapse Isn’t a Sign of Failure.” Psychology Today, October 19, 2012.

2 Smith, Fran. “How Science is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction.” National Geographic, September 2017.

35 Things You Need to Know about Relapse.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Accessed September 28, 2017.

4 Rondo, Jannette, and Feliz, Josie. Survey: Ten Percent of American Adults Report Being in Recovery from Substance Abuse or Addiction. Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, March 6, 2012.

5 Apperson, George Latimer, and Manser, Martin H. Dictionary of Proverbs. Wordswroth Editions Limited, 1993.

6 Teller, Astro. “The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure.” TED, July 26, 2016.

7 Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse, August 2016.

8 Melemis, Steven M. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 23, 2015.

9 Boston Center for Treatment Development and Training. Module 4: Urges. Accessed September 28, 2017.

10 Planning for Emergencies and Coping with Loss. National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse, Accessed September 28, 2017.