Posted in alcohol and drug addiction on January 9, 2018
Last modified on May 13th, 2019

What Are the Warning Signs of Relapse for Drug Users?

A substantial number of people who go into drug treatment will relapse back into active substance use at least once before they establish lasting sobriety. And s drug abuse relapse does not generally appear out of the blue. In fact, several emotional and psychological warning signs typically appear before actual substance intake begins again.

Understanding Drug Relapses

The onset of addiction is a gradual process triggered by long-term changes in the normal function of your brain. Not surprisingly, these changes don’t simply go away when you participate in active substance treatment. Instead, a treatment program aims to help you establish initial sobriety and develop the mental, emotional and behavioral tools needed to remain sober after your program participation ends. Unfortunately, several factors can offset the effectiveness of these new tools and drastically increase the odds that a return to active drug intake will occur. Examples of these factors include:

  • Everyday stress
  • Encounters with specific drug-using cues (e.g., people, places or things associated with drug consumption in the past), and
  • Erratic use of the coping skills learned during treatment

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that, depending on the specific substance, roughly 40% to 60% of all people affected by drug addiction will experience a relapse after first achieving sobriety.

Emotional Warning Signs

In a 2015 study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Canadian researchers examined the sequence of the warning signs that point toward an impending drug abuse relapse. These researchers concluded that the first signs to appear are emotional and occur before a sober addict gives any conscious thought to abandoning sobriety. Examples of the possible warnings include:

  • A failure to express emotions
  • Failure to attend at least some of the scheduled meetings of a post-sobriety self-help group
  • Failure to actively participate in a self-help group meeting
  • Increasing social isolation
  • A tendency to emphasize other people’s problems over your own, and
  • Failure to maintain a healthy diet or stick to a regular sleeping routine

Psychological Warning Signs

The next warning signs of an impending relapse are mental and appear when a recovering addict consciously considers using again. They may include:

  • The presence of active drug cravings
  • Active reminiscing about past episodes of drug use
  • Glamorization of past episodes of drug use
  • An increase in lying and/or social bargaining behaviors
  • Active plotting of ways to use drugs without getting out of control “this time,” and
  • Active plotting of an actual relapse and/or overt drug-seeking behavior

Typically, when these warnings appear, relapse is the next step, unless there is some form of timely intervention.



“Drugs, Brains and Behavior–The Science of Addiction–Treatment and Recovery” – National Institute on Drug Abuse

Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery” – Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine

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