Three Stages of Alcohol Relapse and Prevention Techniques

three stages alcohol relapse
July 16, 2018
|   Updated:
November 3, 2023

People with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) often describe relapse as a sudden occurrence. For example, someone who has a relapse may find themselves drinking in a bar with no memory of how they got there and why. Although this “relapse” experience may seem unexpected and abrupt, actual relapse occurs in multiple stages and begins long before the physical drink. Because of this, it is important for a person with AUD to understand all the three stages of alcohol relapse, so they can be aware of and take action before they find themselves drinking again.

The different stages of a relapse are Emotional Relapse, Mental Relapse, and Physical (or Actual) Relapse.

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

During an Emotional Relapse, the person with AUD may find that their negative emotions are affecting them more than usual. They may feel overwhelmingly angry, agitated, isolated, alone, defensive, anxious and intolerant. Together, these overwhelming feelings form the first stage of alcohol relapse. Even though the person may not yet be thinking about drinking, these negative thoughts and emotions are leading them toward the possibility of using alcohol to cope. Keeping these feelings away are important in preventing the next stages of relapse.

Some ways to minimize the feelings that cause an emotional relapse include:

  • Talking to a trustworthy person.
  • Someone suffering with overwhelming negative emotions can start by sharing their feelings with a sponsor, friend, counselor other people in rehab, or anyone else who they trust and find comfort in.
  • Practicing self-care.
  • A person with AUD should make sure they are eating three healthy meals a day, showering and practicing good hygiene habits, as well as getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. These basic steps often get overlooked when agitated or upset, which will only intensify the unwanted emotions.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Exercise is recommended for many reasons including basic health, but specifically for Emotional Relapse, regular exercises can help release neurochemicals in the brain that may help promote better moods.
  • Staying around other people.
  • Isolation is a very dangerous habit to get into. Especially during Emotional Relapse, the person with AUD should try to keep company around in ways such as joining meetings, attending church, and finding clubs to be a part of.

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

The next stage is Mental Relapse. During this stage, the person with AUD has become tremendously discontent and has begun to think about using alcohol again as a coping mechanism. The effects of the Emotional Relapse stage have caused them to think about how drinking, in the past, was a great escape from the emotional pain. Someone in the Mental Relapse stage may have strong cravings for alcohol and may begin thinking about and missing the people and places associated with drinking. As these thoughts manifest, and the idea of drinking is becoming a more and more idealized, it is important for the person with AUD to take actions that make sure they continue to choose sobriety.

Some ways to distract the thoughts that encourage drinking during a Mental Relapse include:

  • Being honest with thoughts of drinking.
  • It is important for the person who is having a Mental Relapse to be open and honest about their thoughts. Addressing that they are thinking about drinking again is the first step in combating a Mental Relapse.
  • Practicing distraction techniques.
  • Someone with AUD can distract themselves from thoughts about drinking by actively taking the time to do something else each time they notice thoughts about drinking.
  • Learning relaxation techniques.
  • It is likely for the person with AUD to be feeling stressed, agitated and conflicted about drinking again. Taking the time to do some meditation, prayer or deep breathing can help them calm and slow down their mind.
  • Interrupt the drinking pattern.
  • Often times, the Mental Relapse will happen like a chain of events. One thought or reminder leads to the next, causing the idealized thoughts of drinking. Learning to interrupt these thoughts with other ideas is important for someone in a Mental Relapse to learn.

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

The last stage of relapse is the Physical or Actual Relapse. During this stage, the person with AUD is actually drinking again. Although it may be difficult to return to sobriety at this stage, it is completely possible and may actually be seen as a learning experience. Understanding that the Emotional and Mental stages exists, someone who has physically relapsed can look back and understand which emotions and thoughts led up to this so that they can use techniques to avoid them in the future.

Something that may help with recovering from a Physical Relapse is Remote Alcohol Monitoring.

  • Remote Alcohol Monitoring.
  • These devices can help to prevent continued physical relapse by helping someone with AUD stay accountable and allowing their loved ones or treatment professionals to stay updated on their recovery journey. Remote Alcohol Monitoring gives the person with AUD the ability to test for sobriety at any time in the comfort of their own home.
  • Remote Alcohol Monitoring Example.
  • Soberlink is an example of a Remote Alcohol Monitoring Device. Soberlink allows someone with AUD to easily and discretely send results to anyone that they wish, which can be a strong motivation to stay sober. Actively thinking about stay sober and having someone on the other end care about their sobriety can greatly help with all stages of relapse.

Stages of Relapse Summary

AUD Relapse is a longer and more complex process than one would think, and may take plays days, weeks or even months before the physical drinking. It is important to make sure that all the stages of relapse are understood so that the person with AUD or someone who cares about them can use the above techniques to stop relapse at an early stage.

About the Author

Social worker and author, Jason Simpkins, has worked in the human service field for over 17 years, with experience in individual and family counseling, addiction, suicidology, and crisis intervention.

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