5 Warning Signs of Relapse

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Staying sober isn’t an easy thing to do for many people. The risk for relapse is always a real possibility, which is why knowing the most common signs of relapse is essential. Whether you, yourself are in recovery or have a friend or family member who is, it is helpful to be aware of the behaviors you should be concerned about in recovery.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that although relapse is relatively common among people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, it can be life-threatening to people who relapse after long periods of sobriety.[1] After several months or years sober, a person’s tolerance will have dropped significantly, so smaller amounts of substances will affect them harder than they did when the person was actively using every day. As a result, individuals may be more susceptible to an overdose after periods of sobriety.

Once relapse occurs, getting back on the path to sobriety is sometimes challenging to do. Many people feel shame, remorse, or guilt surrounding their relapse or experience intense drug cravings that seem possible to overcome. However, by learning the warning signs of relapse, you can prevent a relapse before it occurs.

Signs That You or a Loved One Are Susceptible to Relapse

Relapse usually doesn’t occur as a result of one singular event. Instead, it happens as a process – sometimes gradual and slow and other times rapid. The process of relapse is usually a combination of emotional and mental difficulties or patterns that eventually lead to physical relapse. As a result, relapse can be broken down into the following three stages:

  • Emotional relapse – this stage occurs before a person even thinks of using drugs or alcohol again. The individual may begin experiencing an array of negative emotions, such as depression, anger, or irritability.
  • Mental relapse – in most cases, mental relapse comes after a person’s emotions begin fluctuating. Mental relapse can be thought of as an internal struggle where the person begins toying with thoughts of using drugs or alcohol.
  • Physical relapse – physical relapse is what people usually think of when they hear the word “relapse.” This is when the individual physically consumes drugs or alcohol.

Here are five warning signs that you or a loved one is on the road to relapse.

1. Isolating from friends, family, and loved ones

Addiction is said to be a disease of isolation because isolation is common among people who are actively battling addiction and people who are headed towards relapse. Staying connected with friends, family, and support groups are integral aspects of recovery, and when these connections begin to slip, individuals start to feel distant and isolated from their community. Peer support not only provides people in recovery with a sense of belonging, but it also helps hold them accountable for their recovery. If you or a loved one are isolating more than usual, you may want to examine why and take action before it is too late.

2. Feeling lonely, depressed, unsatisfied, or bored on a day to day basis

It’s completely normal to feel anxious, bored, and even depressed from time to time. However, persistent negative emotions such as these are commonly associated with relapse. When you begin your journey to recovery, it is important to find people and activities to keep you busy and satisfied. Otherwise, it becomes easy to sulk in these negative emotions. If you’re having trouble pulling yourself out of these painful feelings, reach out to a counselor or trusted loved one. Persistent negative emotions are an early warning sign of relapse, but by getting help in time, you can stay on the right track.

3. Not going to meetings or engaging with peer support

Regular attendance at 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are critical aspects of recovery for many people. In fact, many 12-step members attend meetings on a weekly basis throughout their sobriety. If you or a loved one is a regular 12-step attendee but has recently stopped attending meetings, it is a sign of emotional relapse. In addition to not attending meetings, distancing oneself from peer support or one’s sponsor are indications of something going wrong.

4. Changes in daily habits and self-care

Another vital part of recovery is self-care, including maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and taking time to relax. If these activities have begun slipping down on your list of priorities, there may be a more profound emotional or mental issue that you are dealing with. Although self-care is easily overlooked, neglecting these necessary, daily activities is another warning sign of impending drug or alcohol relapse.

5. Thinking about using drugs or alcohol and lying about it

It is completely normal for people in recovery to experience thoughts about or cravings for drugs and alcohol. Still, if these thoughts turn into fantasies, it is something to be concerned about. If you find yourself thinking about ways you could control your substance use, get away with using drugs or alcohol, or are planning to use, you are probably headed towards relapse and need to confide with a trusted friend or addiction specialist. However, telling the truth isn’t always easy – and if you’re having trouble getting honest about your cravings with a sponsor or therapist, you’re exhibiting one of the most severe and common warning signs of relapse.

Relapsed? How to Get Back on Track

Although everyone should have a relapse prevention strategy to turn to when their recovery stands on shaky ground, relapse is sometimes a part of recovery. If you or a loved one do relapse, the best thing you can do is to ask for help from an addiction treatment provider near you.

At New Jersey Addiction Interventions, we are dedicated to providing each and every one of our patients with a nonjudgemental and compassionate environment to turn to after relapse. We’ll show you that you’re not alone and that you, too, can get sober and stay sober. So, what are you waiting for? Whether you are seeking treatment for the first time or are just coming back from a relapse, we’re here for you. Pick up the phone and call us today.


  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

Medically Reviewed: August 12, 2020

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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