Alcohol Relapse Warning Signs and Addictions Support
Recovering from an alcohol addiction takes a large amount of willpower and determination and can often require some professional help along the way.
Overcoming alcohol use disorder (AUD) can be tough, but it is a huge achievement to reach sobriety.
No matter how long a person has abstained from alcohol, relapse is always a possibility.
A relapse should not be used as an excuse to give up and continue drinking, instead, it should be used as a learning curve to understand what triggers are still in your life.
It is important to view relapse as a setback rather than a failure and it can help to understand the causes of relapse so you know what to look out for and how you can help yourself or your loved one.
Common reasons for addiction relapse
Studies show that those who do not seek professional treatment for their alcohol use disorder tend to relapse in larger numbers than those that do seek professional treatment (1).
This could be because they were not taught coping techniques in therapy or feel that they are not properly equipped to deal with cravings. However, there are many reasons why a person might relapse.
Some of the most common reasons for addiction relapse are:
1. Withdrawal symptoms
Many people suffer from debilitating and severe withdrawal symptoms when trying to give up alcohol. Without the use of prescription medication to help ease the symptoms, the only way to alleviate the symptoms is to drink more alcohol.
This is because your brain has altered its chemical balance to adjust to the levels of alcohol in your system – and when you remove the alcohol that your body has become used to, your brain’s chemistry becomes unbalanced which can result in you feeling unwell.
2. Stress, sadness, or other uncomfortable human emotions
Before turning to sobriety – a person suffering from alcohol use disorder likely turned to alcohol to help them cope with uncomfortable emotions such as stress and sadness. Many people turn to alcohol to cover up these emotions or avoid having to face them.
If a person who has been abstaining from alcohol suddenly finds themselves in a stressful situation, they may turn to alcohol to help them cope.
3. Poor mental health
If you turned to alcohol as a result of poor mental health, these issues need to be tackled as well as the alcohol use disorder. If you reach sobriety without also treating the underlying mental health conditions, you are more likely to turn to alcohol in the future to deal with your mental health (2).
When you seek professional help to overcome an addiction, your mental health will be assessed, and you will receive the relevant help to better your chances of staying sober.
4. Triggering people or places
Being around the same people that you surrounded yourself with during your addiction will heighten your chances of a relapse – especially if these people have a similar addiction and have not sought sobriety.
Certain people can be bad influences and can often encourage you to drink again. Similarly, frequently going to bars, nightclubs, or casinos where alcohol is served can cause a relapse.
It is best to avoid people, places or situations that may trigger a relapse until you have a better grip on your sobriety.
What are the warning signs of alcohol relapse?
It is helpful to know what to look for if you fear you or a loved one might relapse. Some of the most common warning signs of relapse are:
- Change in attitude towards recovery: A person on the verge of relapse may suddenly feel that they no longer need to attend peer support meetings or therapy. Not being fully present during the meetings, being late to meetings or skipping them entirely are all warning signs that the person may be close to relapse.
- Stress: During alcohol rehabilitation, people learn coping mechanisms to manage their stress levels. If someone has stopped using these coping mechanisms, they will appear more stressed and agitated than usual. As the stress levels rise, they may overreact to certain situations and end up feeling as though they have lost control. At this point, they are more likely to turn to alcohol to calm themselves down.
- Denial: You may have noticed some warning signs in a person and approached them with your worries. If this is the case and they strongly deny that there is a problem, they could be on the verge of a relapse. If they are not coping with their stresses and skipping their therapy sessions but denying that they have a problem or assuring you that they can handle it, it is a good idea to keep a close eye on them.
- Changes to routine: Someone recovering from alcohol use disorder is likely to have a healthy daily routine that includes some daily exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, and a good sleep pattern. If someone going through recovery suddenly replaces these healthy routines with bad behaviours such as skipping meals, poor sleep patterns or lack of personal hygiene – this could indicate that they feel a loss of control and they may be close to a relapse.
- Other indications of lack of control: If you notice that someone going through recovery is suddenly overspending or developing other unhealthy habits such as spending too much time online, this also indicates a lack of control that could spiral towards a relapse. They might also lose control of their emotions easily and appear to have intense mood swings.
- Removal of support: Someone who is trying to hide the fact they have relapsed or are on the verge of relapse might begin to distance themselves from friends or family. They might be feeling guilty about their urges and ashamed that they are unable to control themselves and will want to stay away from people who will force them to be accountable for their actions – even if that means risking relapse.
- Social drinking: After a period of time, a person who has been through the recovery process might feel that they have enough control to begin socially drinking again. While some people may learn to control their intake of alcohol, this is a slippery slope and could result in the person returning to abusing alcohol.
How to support someone through an alcohol relapse
While it is O.K to feel disappointed if someone you love relapses, it is important to realise that a relapse is not the end of the person’s sobriety – it is a common occurrence amongst those who are overcoming addiction and it does not indicate that they have failed.
However, when you are supporting them through the relapse, it is important to do so in a way that does not enable or prolong their behaviour:
- Stand firm: They may have excuses for their relapse and try to make you feel sorry for them. While these excuses may be valid, it is important to remind them that they need to focus on becoming sober.
- Don’t be judgemental: Judging them will not help them. They need to know that relapse is normal, and it is only a setback. If they feel judged, they might relapse further to numb the guilt of letting people down.
- Don’t make it easy for them: Don’t phone in sick for work on their behalf or make excuses for them. Don’t lend them money or buy them alcohol even if they promise this will be the last time. These are enabling behaviours and they only prolong and hinder the person’s recovery.
- Talk to them in private: Having a conversation about a relapse in a public place will lead to them feeling judged and uncomfortable. You are less likely to get through to a person who is focusing on who and what is around them rather than the conversation at hand.
- Stay calm: Losing your temper will get you nowhere and will only push the person away from you. You want them to know they can lean on you for support, and they are unlikely to do that if they think you will get angry with them. It is perfectly acceptable to feel angry and disappointed with them but express those feelings to other people.
- Encourage professional treatment: Encourage the person to seek professional help before things get out of hand. This is especially important if they have been avoiding peer support groups or therapy in the run-up to their relapse. Let them know that these sessions are there to help and support them and they will find invaluable help during these sessions.
- Attend AA meetings in your area: You may learn more about addiction and how to support someone you love if you attend AA meetings yourself. The people in these groups will have advice and tips on how you can help and support your loved ones in their journey to sobriety. You can even offer to attend a meeting with the person who has relapsed so you can learn more about what they are going through.