Relapse: How to Process the Experience
Relapse: Part of being human is experiencing a broad spectrum of thoughts, feelings, life experiences- and then thoughts, and feelings, about those life experiences. Whether we are in recovery from addiction or not, we are vulnerable to the unpredictable moments of life outside of ourselves, as well as the sometimes unpredictable life our mind can take on inside of ourselves.
In our active addiction, we became disconnected from our thoughts and feelings, often letting the spontaneity of life jolt us in and out of feeling states. To cope, we sought mind-altering drugs and alcohol to feel less, or to feel more, or to try and understand feelings at all. As a result, we reprogrammed our brain to relate to life experiences and feeling experiences differently. When we experience emotional distress as a result of any kind of real or perceived life distress, our brain responds by craving an experience-shifting substance.
Through our sobriety, we must learn how to roll with the punches and live life “on life’s terms”, while taking responsibility for our own reactions to all that life has to offer us. Gaining the skill set to adapt to all kinds of life situations and keep ourselves sober in the process takes time, practice, and dedication to developing an entirely new way of living.
Like any learning process, there can be bumps in the road along the way. During our early stages of recovery, we can lose our connection to responding to life in a sober way and find ourselves in a relapse. Rather than continue our fight to living life, and all its terms, differently, we return to what we had taught ourselves to know best- using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Relapse occurs when a person returns to using substances – whether for a brief period or for some time longer. What drives us to relapse varies from one individual to the next, one situation to the next. We are best served by understanding what has caused relapse, then quickly moving forward to return to recovery.
External and Internal Pressure
Relapse is a process which takes place both externally and internally. Externally, we might experience situations that create an internal pressure we don’t yet know how to navigate or say “No” to. For example:
· People – running into someone whom you used to abuse substances with, receiving a phone call from someone who used to sell drugs to you, seeing an old romantic partner, or running into someone you have harmed.
· Places – passing by a neighborhood you used to get high in, attending a bar you used to get drunk at, sitting in your bedroom where you used to use drugs, or being in a high conflict situation.
· Things – finding a bottle of beer in the fridge upon your return home from treatment, noticing some unused painkillers in your significant other’s medicine cabinet, seeing smoking-related objects in a store, or finding a needle which may be full of drugs.
· Events – holidays, birthdays, times of the day when you used to abuse substances, or any occasion which might have inspired substance use.
Now that you know more about some of the situations that can produce thoughts and feelings of wanting to use again, you can become more familiar with internal pressures – or, in other words, pressures that occur inside of us – ones that other people tend to not know about.
· Physical sensations – experiencing physical pain, exhaustion, stress, post-acute withdrawal symptoms, injuries, illness, disease, and more.
· Emotional sensations – ruminating, holding onto resentment, overthinking, depression, anxiety, PTSD, distress, and more.
Working Through It
In psychology, the term distress tolerance is defined as a person’s ability to work through difficult or “impossible to change” situations. Difficult emotions like anger, resentment, depression and more can make it feel like nothing will ever change; the problem with this is that, as it naturally occurs, our thoughts and feelings will change – and if we can learn to manage those difficult emotions and wait it out, we’ll be able to avoid relapse.
Low distress tolerance is associated with drug-related reward seeking behaviors – which could lead to relapse. Individuals in recovery have often experienced the impact that negative thinking and rumination can have on their recovery journey, in addition to being around people and places that make it harder for them to stay on track.
When we’re faced with challenging circumstances which trigger temptation, how should we handle them? Sometimes it can feel impossible to ignore what is so painstakingly obvious in our mental awareness. Yet we do so diligently when we ignore the obligation of our sobriety and turn towards substances instead.
Grounding yourself and recognizing what could happen if you give into temptations is critical. We call it “playing the tape through” to refer to taking a mindful moment and thoroughly contemplating the consequences of our actions. Surely, just taking a drink or using a drug seems relatively harmless, especially to anyone else. However, when we pick up and use, we don’t just negatively influence our own life, we send a ripple effect through the lives of everyone who we know. What you must remind yourself is what happens after you relapse. How do you feel? What happens around you? What happens in the lives of others?
Getting Back to Recovery
With so many opportunities for challenges, recovery is all about striking a balance and using the tools you gain in treatment to help you stay the course of your sobriety. Treatment and therapy are strong components of recovery that allow you to work through some of the things that have been holding you back or leading you in the wrong direction.