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Relapse Prevention Steps to Take After a Substance Abuse Treatment Center

A substance abuse treatment center is great, and can help you break old habits that you have struggled with for years. But in order to remain free of those habits, you will need to develop a plan to avoid relapse. This article explains some of the most important features of relapse and how to prevent it.

Relapse prevention describes the process of developing skills and habits to continue healthy behaviors and avoid falling into old patterns of negative behavior. Relapse prevention is vital for any substance abuse treatment program because without it, a return to previous habits is almost inevitable. But once you understand relapse, you will be able to much more effectively control the thoughts and behaviors that lead to relapse.

How Does Relapse Happen?

It’s important to understand that relapse does not begin with the adoption of old, unhealthy. Falling back into those behaviors is the last step of relapse, and the process begins before that. Relapse is a mental process. Understanding that process can help you to stop it before it ends in a return to unhealthy behaviors. Outlined below is one model of how relapse occurs. If you have just gotten through a substance abuse treatment program, it can help to think about your own behaviors as you read through the steps. See if you can fit your own thoughts and actions into this framework. If you can recognize the stages of relapse as they are happening, you will be much better prepared to deal with them and take action to prevent relapse.

Stages of Relapse

  1. The trigger. Something happens that provides impetus for the whole process. It could be anything—good or bad, internal or external, mental or physical. A stressful day at work, running into an old friend who uses, or achieving a goal and feeling proud of yourself could all be triggering events.
  2. You interpret it. The trigger itself doesn’t begin the relapse, but it causes a change in your mental state. Usually it takes the form of a statement of what you believe about yourself. This statement varies from person to person and situation to situation, but examples could include saying to yourself, “I’m a total failure,” “I’m not good enough to succeed,” or “I deserve to celebrate.”
  3. Cravings. Your interpretation of the triggering event leads to cravings, the physical and psychological desire to engage in your old, harmful behaviors. This can be any behavior you’re trying to avoid, such as having a drink or going gambling.
  4. You have permission-giving thoughts. Your craving can then lead to thoughts where you give yourself permission to engage in the old behavior. These thoughts can take many different forms. Here are a few examples: “I had a rough day at work. I need a cigarette.” “I haven’t had a drink in a month. I’ll be fine just going to that party.” “Maybe I’ll have just one hit with my old friend. He’s excited to see me.”
  5. Action. At this point in the process you take the steps necessary to engage in the old pattern, or give yourself an excuse for not engaging in your new pattern. Examples could be calling your old dealer, stocking up on beer for the weekend, “dropping in” on a friend you know is always supplied, or inviting a friend over so you cannot make it to your exercise class.
  6. Harmful behavior. You finally engage in the old habit. This is the final stage of relapse.

Identifying High-Risk Situations

Identify for yourself which situations lead to relapse or any of the behaviors described above. These are high-risk situations for you. Addressing, avoiding, and managing these high-risk situations is key to avoiding relapse. In fact, the reason rehabilitation at a substance abuse treatment center works so well is because high-risk situations have been removed for your life.

High-risk situations can be internal or external in origin.

Examples of internal risk situations:

  • feeling depressed, bored, lonely or tired
  • being excited at the end of the day on payday
  • feeling proud of an accomplishment achieved

Examples of external risk factors are:

  • an argument with your partner
  • a call from an old “using” friend
  • money stress
  • hearing a radio commercial
  • a sporting or social event

Avoiding Relapse

Relapse prevention is different for each person. The most important thing you can do to avoid relapse is to develop a plan so you can avoid situations which lead to relapse or to any of the steps described above.

It’s a good idea to work with your therapist at your substance abuse treatment center to develop a written plan to avoid relapse. List common situations and behaviors and how you will react to them.

A good substance abuse treatment center should be able to offer you a number of resources to avoid relapse. Support groups can be very effective, and your substance abuse treatment center should be able to recommend local groups that can help you.

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