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Recognizing Drug and Alcohol Relapse Triggers for You and Your Loved Ones

Alcohol Abuse

"The causes, or triggers, of a relapse are often similar regardless of the specific drug being used."
A relapse is a recurrence of a past condition, typically a medical condition. Within the context of drug abuse, a relapse is the resumption of drug use after a period of abstinence. The potential for dependence and relapse can vary greatly according to the specific substance. The drugs with the greatest potential for dependence are those that induce the highest tolerance and have the highest pharmacological efficacy. The causes, or triggers, of a relapse are often similar regardless of the specific drug being used. As a result, the rehab and recovery treatment programs to prevent a relapse are also similar for many types of drugs as well as alcohol. Learn more about recognizing relapse triggers for drug and alcohol abuse by calling 1-888-966-8334 today.


Most drugs that can cause relapses may generally be classified into the categories of depressants and stimulants according to their effects on the nervous system. Depressants reduce the activity of neurons and include such drugs as:

These drugs suppress the activity of the frontal cortex, which reduces inhibitions. This results in behavior such as poor judgment and a sense of risk, commonly known as intoxication.

Stimulants increase the activity of the cerebral cortex, resulting in greater motor activity. Common stimulants include such drugs as:

Some drugs, such as nicotine, have properties of depressants and stimulants, so they don't fall easily into either category. Other types of drugs, such as hallucinogens, are commonly abused but have less potential for addiction.

Addictive Potential

"Schedule II drugs have therapeutic uses; however, they can also result in severe psychological and physical dependence."Various models exist for measuring a drug's addictive potential. Factors that affect the addictive potential of a particular drug include dose, frequency and method of administration. An article in the 2007 issue of The Lancet provides a system whereby each drug is rated on a scale of 0 to 3 in the categories of physical addiction, pleasure and psychological addiction. Zero is the lowest score and 3 is the highest score in each category. This provides an aggregate scale of 0 to 9, with 9 representing the drug with the greatest addictive potential. The study examined 20 drugs, including heroin, which was the only drug to receive the maximum score of 9.

The Drug Enforcement Agency classifies drugs into five categories according to their addictive potential, with Schedule V being the lowest category and Schedule I being the highest. The Office of Diversion Control provides a description of these categories along with the drugs in each category. Schedule I drugs have no accepted therapeutic or medical uses. Schedule II drugs have therapeutic uses; however, they can also result in severe psychological and physical dependence.


The factors that have the greatest effect on the probability of a relapse include:

  • Dose
  • Drug-taking history
  • Environment
  • Neurochemistry
  • Pharmacokinetics

stress triggerThe triggers for a relapse may be classified as environmental triggers, re-exposure triggers and stress triggers. These stimuli can cause a neurochemical response that induces an intense craving for the drug that may lead to a relapse. Stress triggers typically include such emotions as anger, fear and sadness. Environmental triggers often include loud noises and social events. Exposure triggers include circumstances that bring the user into proximity with a drug of abuse, and this can reinstate the drug-seeking behavior.

Stress triggers are usually the strongest type of relapse trigger because they stimulate drug-seeking behavior during abstinence. The degree of stress-related craving is also a good predictor for when a relapse may occur. Any stimuli the user associates with drug use can serve as a trigger for a relapse, including people, places and things. If you want more information on identifying relapse triggers, call us at 1-888-966-8334.


The approaches for reducing the likelihood of a relapse can be classified into three general categories: medical therapy, psychological therapy and contingency management. The primary goals in preventing a patient's relapse are identifying the needs the drug was meeting and helping the patient to develop skills for addressing those issues in other ways.
The purpose of medical therapy for drug addiction is to reduce the initial drug use, stabilize the user and prevent a relapse. Medication can correct the long-term changes in the brain caused by prolonged drug abuse, although this type of therapy often becomes complex as the region of the brain affected by the drug may be different from the area that deals with the desire to use the drug. Medical therapy for preventing a relapse often targets the receptor sites of various neurotransmitters, especially dopamine. The recovery of these receptor sites generally involves administering antagonists for that receptor. Drugs that attempt to treat neurons that have adapted to prolonged drug abuse are relatively ineffective.

The psychological therapy for preventing a relapse primarily deals with identifying relapse triggers and the consequences of a relapse. Cognitive behavioral therapy is commonly used for this purpose. This therapy uses positive and negative reinforcement to change the patient's thoughts, emotions and actions that relate to drug use. Cue exposure is one of the primary approaches used in cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves repeatedly exposing patients to the relapse triggers without exposing them to the drug. The purpose of this approach is to prevent the patient from engaging in drug-seeking behavior when exposed to the drug. This therapy technique typically reduces the severity of the relapse rather than completely preventing a relapse. A patient also learns coping mechanisms for avoiding drug use, which typically require frequent modification of the patient's drug-seeking behavior changes.

Contingency management
focuses on the consequences of a relapse instead of identifying its precursors. It primarily reinforces the patient's abstinent behavior with a system of rewards and punishments. For example, contingency management often provides patients with vouchers when they abstain from drugs. The patient may then redeem these vouchers to purchase retail items.

Get Help for Drug and Alcohol Relapse Treatment

If you need help recognizing drug relapse triggers, call us today at 1-888-966-8334. If you are, or someone you know is, experiencing a relapse, we can help you find the right addiction recovery program to effectively get back on the road to recovery.