Why Alcoholism Relapse Is So Common

For every recovering alcoholic, relapse is a persistent and ominous threat. Once they’ve stopped drinking, the alcoholic would dearly like to believe they’ve banished the substance from their lives forever. Studies, however, suggest that more than half of all recovering alcoholics relapse at some point. In many instances, relapse is a temporary setback. Nevertheless, a relapse can be dangerous and it is not something to be taken lightly. There are a few reasons why relapses happen, and if those in recovery for alcohol abuse are aware of the risks, they will have a much better chance of avoiding them.

Five Causes of Alcoholism Relapse

Addiction to alcohol is a permanent condition, and even when a person stops drinking for an extended period, they are never completely safe. No two recovering alcoholics are exactly alike, but it is possible to identify some common factors that predispose a person to relapse:

  1. Lasting changes in the brain

Extensive alcohol abuse causes changes in brain chemistry and structure that may take months or years of committed sobriety to undo. As long as these changes persist, the chances of relapse are enhanced, which is why recovering alcoholics should never overlook the neurological aspects of their conditions.

  1. Overconfidence

There’s a reason alcoholics who’ve stopped drinking are referred to as “recovering” rather than “recovered.” Complacency undermines many recovering alcoholics after the first few months of sobriety, and they may start to believe that maybe they can handle just one drink. They can’t.

  1. Failure to recognize certain triggers

In rehab, alcoholics and their therapists spend a lot of time working to identify potential triggers to relapse. For the uninitiated, triggers are reminders of past drug abuse that create new physical or psychological cravings. This process is important for recovery but it is not perfect: some recovering alcoholics aren’t thorough enough or self-reflective enough to identify every trigger, and they don’t realize they’re vulnerable in certain situations until it is far too late.

  1. Stress and anxiety prove to be overwhelming

Some triggers are specific, but stress and anxiety are a general problem for recovering alcoholics and they can arise in new and unexpected situations. Recovering alcoholics can benefit tremendously from stress-relieving practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi or massage. These mindfulness techniques can help defuse anxiety in a wide range of situations.

  1. Returning to the scene of the crime

In many instances, it is not the particular circumstances or events but entire living arrangements that leave recovering alcoholics vulnerable to relapse. Dysfunctional home or working environments are often associated with substance abuse, and recovering alcoholics who return to troubled circumstances may lose their resolve and gradually drift back into their old habits.

Bringing Relapse Out of the Shadows

For each recovering alcoholic, relapse will remain a significant risk as long as they remain oblivious to the forces that can push them back toward alcohol. Awareness won’t completely eliminate the risk of relapse, but it will sharpen the emotional immune system considerably and give the recovering alcoholic a much better chance of resisting the urge to open the door when temptation comes knocking.


Psychology Today: Why Relapse Isn’t a Sign of Failure https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201210/why-relapse-isnt-sign-failure AddictScience.com: Why Relapse is Common https://www.addictscience.com/why-relapse-happens/

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