Seven Steps to Avoid Alcohol Relapse

Footsteps in sand
April 1, 2018
|   Updated:
September 7, 2023

Even on the best days, sobriety is a journey. Sometimes, though, people in recovery have to struggle through the day or even the hour. The key to getting through these tough periods is not to pretend they won’t happen—because they will. Instead, it’s better to anticipate challenges before they start and come up with a plan or two. Spending time mapping out common triggers (people, places, times of year) is also a great way to gain deeper insight into what drives your urge to drink or use. Use these seven steps to help you stay ahead when the road gets bumpy in recovery.

1. Identify Challenging Situations

Holidays, parties, or anniversaries can be fraught situations for a few reasons. Unfortunately, alcohol plays a role in most social gatherings. If you are newly sober, it’s usually best to completely avoid situations where everyone else will be drinking. If you have a decent amount of time sober, it may be OK to show up with your own non-alcoholic drinks, but be honest with yourself to avoid an alcohol relapse. Holidays may feel like non-negotiable events, but a loving and supportive family will understand if you’re not comfortable having alcohol around during Christmas or if you have to leave early. If you have a family that likes to drink, you may want to weigh your feelings of obligation to spend time with them against the possibility of relapse, especially if there are complicated or painful emotional dynamics at play.

2. Immediately Deal with Strong Feelings Like Depression, Anger, or Anxiety

As sobriety sets in, very strong feelings that have been dulled by alcohol will inevitably make themselves known. It’s important to not just stew in these feelings, because they can trigger powerful urges to use. If you can, first try using physical exercise as an outlet; it’s a proven way to stabilize emotions and is especially useful for anxiety and depression. If exercise isn’t your thing, try journaling or an artistic outlet instead. Don’t be afraid to call a sponsor or friend; plan ahead of time who you’ll contact in case you’re in crisis. If you’re really struggling with negative emotions, see a psychiatrist to get help.

3. Separate Good Friends from Bad Friends

“Just one for old time’s sake” are famous last words that can lead to relapse. Most people in recovery will have to cut out certain friends who are still using heavily. Especially in the early stages of recovery, there is absolutely no reason to be socializing with drunk friends at the bar. Good friends will be supportive of your needs and support you instead of teasing or offering drinks. Remember, there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve alcohol. Finding supportive friends is another reason to attend recovery meetings—there are now a variety of alternatives to AA if the Big Book isn’t your thing.

4. Understand The Dangers of Boredom & Loneliness

Boredom and loneliness are just as dangerous as depression or anxiety, especially because they can sneak up on you. Sobriety can feel isolating, especially if most of your friends are people you met at the bar. It also takes initiative to fight loneliness; you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself, get off the couch, and go find sober peers in recovery meetings. There’s no shortage of ways to meet people: you can find local sober activity groups on, Facebook, or Craigslist.

5. Don’t Get Complacent

Even if you’ve been sober for a while, it’s important to stay vigilant for threats and keep looking for new coping skills. Stressful life events can and will happen; and these can be catastrophic to sobriety—no matter how long it’s been—if not dealt with properly. You’ve worked too hard to lose control during difficult times like a death or illness of a loved one, unemployment or financial problems, a divorce, etc. Make sure you understand that stress makes you especially vulnerable for relapse and make a plan right now for how you’ll take care of yourself, whether that be exercise and healthy eating, counseling, art, and/or whatever else works for you. Don’t let a crisis be an excuse to slip.

6. Use the 12 Steps

Alcoholics Anonymous has been using the Twelve-Step program successfully for decades. The Steps have been designed to take a person through every stage of recovery. Along the way, people learn how to improve themselves by taking accountability for their actions, have healthier relationships with others, and seek support when needed, which is what Alcoholics Anonymous groups are meant to do. The 12 Step recovery method may not be glamorous, but it’s proven to be effective—it’s currently in use by hundreds of thousands of people in recovery across the world.

7. Get Help with Accountability

If you’re struggling to stay sober, or if sobriety is a component of a workplace, legal, or relationship agreement, tools exist to help. These days, portable alcohol monitoring has come a long way from simply being available for a lab test. Systems like Soberlink take full advantage of modern technology to provide a discreet breathalyzer tool along with facial-recognition software that wirelessly sends results to individuals you designate. Sometimes, alcohol monitoring can be an important accountability tool especially if it is in your first year of recovery.

Staying sober can be a challenge, but remember that it’s also incredibly liberating to shed an addiction. Be proud of yourself, and use these tips to help you keep your hard work intact. Anticipating triggers, making a plan for crisis situations, setting healthy boundaries with others, and working on your own physical and mental health are simple, actionable steps that you can take to avoid relapse.

About the Author

Natalie has a degree in biology with an emphasis on public health and medical policy. She has spent 10 years in the fields of medicine and mental health, including EMS, detox, inpatient psychiatric care, and as a wilderness therapy guide for troubled teens who often had substance abuse problems. This combination of academic and real-world work experience has given her extensive knowledge in the fields of addiction, from both a biological and social perspective.

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