In this post, we unveil our latest ‘Cheat Sheet.’ This Cheat Sheet covers the important topic of relapse prevention.
When a person decides to ‘give up’ using drugs or alcohol, they must pass through four stages.
These stages include:
- Initial abstinence
- Long-term abstinence
The main issue threatening any of the above stages is a relapse. Cravings initially cause a ‘slip.’ This slip may or may not result in a full-blown relapse. Thus, we may conclude that controlling and fighting off cravings is critical for remaining in recovery.
The below Cheat Sheet outlines a number of relapse prevention tips to help you avoid cravings and therefore avoid relapse.
The science of relapse
Cravings are caused by stimuli that remind the person of his or her past drug or alcohol use. This includes certain people, places or the sight, smell or taste of the substance in question.
Memories relating to past drug or alcohol use are permanently imprinted onto ‘dendrites’ of nerve cells located in the brain. Dendrites allow messages to travel between adjacent nerve cells. Dendrites themselves consist of microscopic fibres. Dendrites contain memories stored in dendritic spines. These spines resemble small bumps.
Dendritic spines develop within the reward reinforcement pathways of the brain when a sensory input associated with pleasure is experienced. If pleasure is associated with this input, the dendritic spines and the associated memory become permanent. Evolution forged this process so that we repeat pleasurable activities that are essential for either our own survival or the survival of our genes. This includes activities such as having sex, eating food and drinking water.
However, addiction hijacks this process so memories attached to addictive and pleasurable activities become permanent due to the development of dendritic spines. Over time, thousands of dendritic spines develop allowing you to associate cues that will cause you to experience cravings for drugs or alcohol. Memories stored via the dendrites eventually become permanent and thus control your behaviour despite significant negative consequences caused by the addictive behaviour.
Although these memories that cause cravings will fade with time, they will never completely disappear. This means there is always a need for recovered addicts to sharpen their skills associated with relapse prevention. And connections between dendritic spines will weaken over time, meaning former addicts are less likely to engage in compulsive substance use when addiction triggers are presented to them.
It follows from the above that relapse is not so much about willpower as it is about changes to the brain because of the addiction. The brain’s memory response means addicts’ behaviour becomes compulsive and hypersensitive when exposed to cues and triggers that remind them of their substance misuse.
The below Cheat Sheet is intended to weaken memories associated to substance misuse so these pathways between nerve cells weaken.