For those struggling with addiction, an alcohol relapse is an unfortunate part of the journey. But it happens. Probably a lot more than you think.

How you choose to handle an alcohol relapse can have two different outcomes:

  1. It can set the stage for continued, and possibly better, recovery;
  2. It can spiral into complete, life-controlling addiction once again.

If you, or someone you care about, has suffered from a relapse, don't walk around believing it's the end of the world. It is possible to master sober living.

We've gathered expert advice regarding what to do and what not to do. Follow these guidelines to get back on the path to recovery.

DON'T: Keep it a Secret

The worst thing you can do is try to hide your relapse. One of the first recovery skills learned during rehabilitation treatment is rigorous honesty. Deception was an addict's device.

Lying about what happened only adds to the shame you already feel about relapsing in the first place. And guilt is one of the triggers that can lead to a horrible downward spiral.

Remember: You were in recovery once before. You had the courage at one point in your life to admit you needed help.

Do it again.

The sooner you seek help to regain your sobriety, the less control your relapse will have over you. Talk to your family, your sponsor, your treatment counselor. They want you to succeed. Let them help you.

Recovery Tip: If you have someone in your life with the "I told you so mentality," it's best to stay away. That approach can negatively affect a person in recovery. Today doctors, counselors, and therapists strongly believe that treatment, not shame, is necessary for hopeful recovery.

DO: Get Back to Recovery Immediately

Recovery is not easy. If it were, there would be no need for detox facilities, treatment centers, or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The next several phone calls (to your partner, your sponsor, your therapist) are going to be difficult. But you need to make a choice.

Are you willing to suffer a few moments of discomfort when you confess to an alcohol relapse? Or would you prefer to go back to the wretched lifestyle of addiction you had successfully escaped not too long ago?

Look at your relapse as an opportunity.

An opportunity to reevaluate your recovery plan.

An opportunity to examine your needs during recovery and make sure you've created healthy boundaries.

An opportunity to learn and grow.

DON'T: Believe You've Failed

Perhaps (and hopefully) people in your support circle have said, "Hey, don't beat yourself up about it. You know you're not alone, right?"

Did it make you feel any better?

It should! 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports findings that within a 4-year period, 90% of people recovering from addiction experience an alcohol relapse at least once.

Of course, that's not to say

DO: Determine What Caused Your Alcohol Relapse

During treatment and in support group you've heard the term "triggers." Triggers are thoughts, actions, and situations that threaten the progression of recovery.

Many experts agree that having a drink is not the first stage of relapse. The process of relapse begins quietly as triggers start to affect your thoughts and behaviors.

The cycle of a relapse has three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. Dr. Steven M. Melemis, Ph.D. breaks down the various triggers:

Emotional Triggers

  • Fear: Feeling a loss of control; remember fear is usually imagined and can thwart your ability to make positive choices
  • Anger: Being overly irritable for no real reason; feeling resentment toward a person or place; internal frustrations become overwhelming
  • Stress: this can be job-related or relational; grouchiness and frustration can lead to arguments which cause stress on the marriage and the addict
  • Exhaustion: Allowing yourself to become overly tired. Not following through on self-care behaviors of adequate rest, good nutrition, and regular exercise. Good physical health is important for emotional well-being
  • Depression: depression is usually a sign of multiple triggers occurring; a feeling of hopelessness and "what's the use" attitude can soon follow

Mental Triggers

  • Thinking about people, places, and things you used with
  • Glamorizing your past use
  • Lying
  • Hanging out with old using friends
  • Fantasizing about using
  • Thinking about relapsing
  • Planning your relapse around other people's schedules

Physical Triggers

  • Isolation: Begin spending more time alone; avoiding healthy social interactions with non-users
  • Avoiding established routine: having a daily routine is essential for creating new habits; without routine actions become unplanned and haphazard; this can easily lead to stressful situations
  • Boredom
  • Return to old habits
  • Poor eating habits
  • Change in life event: the birth of a child or a new job are often events for celebration; the person trying to recover needs to have a plan in place to deal with these potential triggers
  • Aches and pains can lead to the desire to reuse. It's important to find alternative methods for dealing with physical discomfort.

To prevent another alcohol relapse it's necessary to understand your own specific triggers. Recognizing warning signs may rescue you from experiencing another relapse in the future.

DON'T: Think Recovery is Not for You

You may not want to hear this, but relapse is not uncommon. Research suggests that 40-60% of people on an addiction treatment plan will experience a full-blown alcohol relapse.

Knowing what the cause was can help create a stronger recovery plan moving forward.

DO: Try Again

Regardless of what caused your alcohol relapse, the most important thing is to get right back to recovery.

Getting back to your support group is essential. Nonusing individuals can provide social support, offer insight and ideas for coping with an alcohol relapse.

A relapse is often a natural part of recovery. Don't allow shame or embarrassment to take over your thoughts.

You will only be a failure if you do not try again.

The best thing you can do right now is to reward yourself with another day of sobriety.

Then you can celebrate your success!