Ways to Prevent Relapse

April 23, 2024

Discover effective ways to prevent relapse, from therapy techniques to medications and support programs.

Understanding Relapse

The journey to sobriety is not always a straight path. It's often marked with challenges, and one of the most common hurdles individuals face is relapse. Understanding relapse is crucial for both the individual in recovery and their support network, as it provides valuable insights into effective ways to prevent relapse and support long-term recovery.

Relapse as a Process

Contrary to common perception, relapse is not a singular event, but rather a process. It's a gradual progression that occurs over time, with distinct stages. It often starts with emotional and mental shifts before it manifests in the physical act of substance use.

The reasons behind relapse are often linked to the initial reasons why individuals started using drugs or alcohol. Most often, it's to relieve physical or psychological pain, or to numb themselves.

Understanding relapse as a process rather than a single event emphasizes the importance of ongoing support and vigilance throughout recovery. It's important to note that relapse, while not a desirable outcome, is not a sign of failure and does not erase all the important work done during the initial stages of recovery. It is simply an indication that more support and perhaps a different approach to treatment is required to continue the recovery journey [3].

Stages of Relapse

Relapse is a gradual process that can be broken down into stages. Recognizing these stages can provide crucial insights into when intervention is most likely to be successful. The goal of treatment is to help individuals recognize these early stages, where the chances of successful intervention are greatest.

  1. Emotional Relapse: In this stage, individuals may not be thinking about using the substance, but their behaviors and emotions set the stage for a potential relapse. Signs can include anxiety, mood swings, poor sleep, and lack of self-care.
  2. Mental Relapse: In the mental relapse stage, individuals may begin to battle with their thoughts about using. They may romanticize their past use, start lying, hang out with old friends who use, and start planning a relapse.
  3. Physical Relapse: This is the stage where individuals start using the substance again. It may start with a small slip, but it can quickly lead to a full-blown relapse.

Most relapses can be explained in terms of a few basic rules:

  1. Change your life.
  2. Be completely honest.
  3. Ask for help.
  4. Practice self-care.
  5. Don’t bend the rules [1].

By understanding these stages, individuals can be better equipped to identify potential triggers and take appropriate action to prevent a full relapse.

Strategies for Relapse Prevention

Preventing relapse is a critical part of the recovery process from substance addiction. It involves a combination of different strategies, all aiming to address the emotional, mental, and physical stages of relapse to prevent individuals from progressing to the next stage. The most common strategies include therapy and skill development, the use of medications, and monitoring techniques.

Therapy and Skill Development

Therapeutic approaches form the backbone of relapse prevention strategies. Various therapy methods, such as motivational interviewing, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy, contingency management, and community reinforcement, are employed to help individuals struggling with addiction. These therapies focus on increasing motivation, developing coping skills, addressing underlying issues, and changing behaviors associated with substance use [4].

Each therapy approach serves a different purpose. For instance, motivational interviewing is designed to increase an individual's motivation to change, while cognitive-behavioral therapy helps individuals develop coping strategies to deal with situations that may trigger relapse. The key is to find a therapy approach that best meets the individual's needs and works in their specific context.

Medications for Relapse Prevention

Medications can play a crucial role in preventing relapse by reducing cravings and deterring substance use. Medications such as disulfiram, naltrexone, acamprosate, methadone, buprenorphine, and certain drugs for nicotine use disorders have shown favorable results in assisting individuals to maintain their recovery. However, it's important to note that the effectiveness of these medications varies depending on the substance being treated.

An individual's healthcare provider should carefully consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of each medication, taking into account the person's specific circumstances, overall health, and the type of substance they are recovering from.

Monitoring Techniques

Monitoring techniques offer an objective way to detect drug or alcohol use and serve as a deterrent against relapse. Methods such as urine drug screens, breathalyzers, skin monitors, and salvia tests provide tangible evidence of abstinence and can inform treatment interventions. Regular monitoring not only keeps individuals accountable for their recovery but also provides crucial data that can help to adjust treatment plans as necessary [4].

Preventing relapse is a multifaceted process that requires a comprehensive and customized approach. By combining therapy and skill development, appropriate medications, and monitoring techniques, individuals in recovery have a robust set of tools to stay on track and maintain their sobriety.

Therapy Approaches

Therapy approaches play a crucial role in preventing relapse and helping individuals maintain recovery from substance use disorders. These methods aim to enhance motivation, develop coping skills, address underlying issues, and change behaviors associated with substance use. The following are some of the most effective therapy approaches for preventing relapse [4].

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a therapy approach used to reinforce motivation and commitment to change by exploring and resolving ambivalence. The objective is to help individuals recognize their desire to change, understand the pros and cons of their substance use, and develop a plan for change. Research indicates that motivational interviewing can be effective in reducing substance use and preventing relapse.

In motivational interviewing, therapists use specific techniques such as open-ended questions, affirmations, reflections, and summaries (OARS) to facilitate conversation about change. This client-centered approach respects individual autonomy and promotes self-efficacy, enhancing the likelihood of sustained recovery.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used therapy approach for relapse prevention. It focuses on identifying and modifying detrimental thought patterns and behaviors linked to substance use. This includes recognizing triggers for use, developing strategies to manage cravings, and building skills to cope with stress and other high-risk situations. Studies show that CBT can effectively reduce substance use and prevent relapse.

CBT can be delivered in individual or group settings and is often combined with other types of therapy or medication. The skills learned through CBT can provide lasting benefits, helping individuals maintain their recovery long after therapy has ended.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a newer therapy approach that endeavors to help individuals accept their thoughts and feelings while committing to behavior change aligned with their values. Instead of trying to suppress or control these experiences, ACT teaches individuals to observe and accept them without judgment. This approach can help reduce the struggle with distressing thoughts or emotions that can often lead to substance use.

The goal of ACT is to enhance psychological flexibility - the ability to stay in contact with the present moment and choose behaviors based on values and goals, even in the face of difficult experiences. Preliminary research suggests that ACT can be beneficial in reducing substance use and preventing relapse.

These therapy approaches offer valuable tools and strategies for anyone seeking to prevent relapse. By working with a trained therapist, individuals can learn to navigate the challenges of recovery and build a fulfilling, substance-free life.

Medications for Prevention

There are several medications that have been identified as effective in preventing relapse. These include disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate. It's important to note that the success of these medications can depend on the individual and their unique situation, so it's crucial to work with a healthcare provider to find the best approach.


Disulfiram is a medication that discourages drinking by causing unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and flushing of the skin when alcohol is consumed. This reaction is intended to deter individuals from drinking while they are taking the medication.

While effective, it's important to understand that disulfiram does not reduce the cravings for alcohol. Therefore, it should be used in conjunction with other treatment methods for optimal results. It's also crucial to be aware of the potential side effects, including liver damage, which can occur with long-term use or in those with pre-existing liver conditions.


Naltrexone works by blocking the euphoric effects and feelings of intoxication that individuals may experience when they consume alcohol. This can help reduce the desire to drink. Naltrexone can be taken orally or as a monthly injection.

It's worth noting that naltrexone can cause side effects such as nausea and headaches. It also cannot be used by individuals with liver disease or those who are currently using opioids, as it can cause withdrawal symptoms. As with all medications, it's important to discuss these factors and any potential risks with a healthcare provider.


Acamprosate is believed to work by restoring the balance of certain chemicals in the brains of individuals who have quit drinking. This can help alleviate some of the discomfort and unease that people may feel in the early stages of recovery.

Acamprosate is generally well-tolerated but can cause side effects such as diarrhea and abdominal pain. As with disulfiram and naltrexone, it's important to discuss any potential side effects and contraindications with a healthcare provider before starting treatment.

In conclusion, while medications can play a role in preventing relapse, they are typically most effective when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes therapy, lifestyle changes, and support from peers and professionals. It's important to work closely with a healthcare provider to determine the most effective strategies for preventing relapse and maintaining recovery.

Monitoring Methods

Monitoring methods play a crucial role in relapse prevention by providing objective evidence of abstinence and helping individuals in recovery stay accountable. These tools can help detect any potential relapse and ensure the individual stays on the path of recovery. Here, we will discuss three common monitoring methods: urine drug screens, breathalyzers, and skin monitors.

Urine Drug Screens

Used widely in both clinical and recovery settings, urine drug screens are a common tool employed for relapse prevention. They entail the collection of a urine sample, which is then analyzed for the presence of specific drugs or their metabolites. The ability to detect a wide range of substances makes urine drug screens a versatile tool in monitoring substance use. However, it's important to note that the detection window for substances varies, depending on the drug and the individual's metabolism.


Breathalyzers are primarily used to monitor alcohol consumption. They work by measuring the amount of alcohol in one's breath, which correlates to the alcohol concentration in their blood. Breathalyzers provide a quick, non-invasive means of testing and can be particularly useful for individuals in recovery from alcohol addiction. While they only provide a snapshot of recent alcohol use, regular testing can help ensure ongoing abstinence and accountability.

Skin Monitors

Skin monitors, or transdermal alcohol monitors, are relatively newer tools used in relapse prevention. These devices, typically worn on the skin, can detect the presence of alcohol in sweat. They provide continuous monitoring and can be particularly useful for individuals who require round-the-clock surveillance, such as those with a history of severe alcohol addiction. It's important to note, however, that while skin monitors can provide valuable information about alcohol use, they may not be as effective in detecting low levels of consumption.

Monitoring Method Substance Detected Method
Urine Drug Screens Wide range of drugs and their metabolites Urine sample analysis
Breathalyzers Alcohol Breath sample analysis
Skin Monitors Alcohol Sweat analysis

These monitoring methods serve as crucial tools in relapse prevention, helping individuals stay accountable and providing objective evidence of abstinence. By using these tools in conjunction with other strategies such as therapy, medication, and peer support, individuals can increase their chances of maintaining long-term recovery.

Peer Support Programs

Peer support programs play a critical role in relapse prevention strategies. Offering a sense of community and understanding, these programs provide individuals with a network of support during their recovery journey. They provide essential support, accountability, and the opportunity to connect with peers who share similar experiences [5]. Let's explore three of such programs: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a widely recognized peer support program specifically designed for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction. The program emphasizes the need for frequent meetings and mentorship. Regular participation in AA helps reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation, common triggers for relapse.

Members engage in a 12-step program that encourages them to admit their powerlessness over alcohol and seek help from a higher power. The efficacy of AA in preventing relapse is an ongoing topic of research, but many individuals have found it to be a crucial part of their recovery journey [4].

Narcotics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous is another peer support program that follows a similar structure to AA. However, this program is designed for individuals battling drug addiction. Like AA, Narcotics Anonymous also follows a 12-step program and emphasizes the value of peer support and mentorship.

Regular participation in Narcotics Anonymous can help individuals struggling with drug addiction feel less alone in their journey, providing a supportive environment where they can share their struggles and learn from others who have successfully maintained their sobriety [6].

SMART Recovery

SMART Recovery is a more recent peer support program that takes a slightly different approach. Unlike AA and Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery focuses on self-empowerment and self-reliance. The program encourages members to manage their own thoughts and behaviors to prevent relapse.

SMART Recovery does not follow a 12-step program, instead, it uses a 4-point program that includes building motivation, coping with urges, managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and living a balanced life. Like other peer support programs, the sense of community and understanding offered by SMART Recovery is a vital resource for many individuals in their recovery journey [2].

In conclusion, peer support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery can provide individuals with a sense of belonging and connection, which can be crucial in preventing relapse. These programs offer a safe and supportive environment where individuals can share their struggles, receive encouragement, and learn from others who have navigated similar challenges. Understanding the role and benefits of these programs can help individuals choose the support that best aligns with their unique journey towards recovery.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/

[2]: https://www.sanantoniorecoverycenter.com/rehab-blog/coping-skills-for-relapse-prevention/

[3]: https://newchoicestc.com/blog/7-common-addiction-relapse-triggers-and-warning-signs-nc/

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551500/

[5]: https://www.addictioncenter.com/community/top-10-relapse-prevention-skills/

[6]: https://www.oceanfrontrecovery.com/rehab-blog/importance-of-a-strong-support-system/