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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.