5 Warning Signs of a Relapse… and How to Respond

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When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or consumed by compulsive behavior, others close to them may come to expect relapses. Although it is frustrating from an outside perspective, relapse is a frequent occurrence especially for addicts in the early stages of recovery. It does not mean the addict is doomed or that there is no hope of rehabilitation, but the journey to recovery is far from over.

As far back as 1965, Narcotics Anonymous noted that a relapse could be a learning experience that leads to freedom – although some are lost entirely. It is not unusual for a recovering addict to give into the compulsion to use. Experts have compared the sickness of addiction to physical diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma. They all have roughly the same relapse rate.

In the end it is up to the user to make the ultimate decision to get sober. Although we would love to help them, there are a few things each addict must realize alone – ideally with the influence of therapy. With that in mind, here are five of the most frequent warning signs of a relapse, and tips for how to respond.

1. Visiting Old Haunts and Friends

  • If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s a duck. So if the addict starts hanging out with the friends they did drugs with in the same places where they took the drugs, then they will likely relapse. This is especially true when their old friends are still notorious drug users. The subject is always at least subconsciously aware that they could be using and they may believe there is no other way out.



    To avoid the situation, encourage the addict to develop a new schedule with different people who don’t see drugs and alcohol as an everyday thing. Regular attendance of 12-step programs and recovery meetings is a good idea. They may want to develop a new, time consuming hobby or career interest.

2. Change In Attitude and Schedule

  • If the addict stops attending their meetings and displays a careless attitude toward recovery, they may be lapsing into their old ways of thinking. If they start missing work a lot or stop going to school and stop talking about the recovery process it could be that a relapse is in the works. They may be visiting old haunts and friends as is detailed in the previous step. Don’t ignore the situation.

3. Stressful or Negative Life Events

  • A stressful or negative life event could be the influence an addict needs to return to compulsive behavior. People often use drugs or alcohol as a means of escaping their problems, and a sudden change may cause them to feel hopeless. Like when someone gets dumped, or fired, and they want to drink and smoke a cigarette. Encourage them to not fall back into addictive behaviors or it could spiral downwards quickly.

4. They Talk About Relapsing

  • This is one of the most obvious signs of imminent relapse, because the addict won’t stop talking about their drug of choice and their old glory days. They may pose a ‘what if’ scenario in which they relapse, or ask you if you want to relapse with them. Remind the addict of the negative aspects of their former use, and try to shift the conversation to a healthier topic.

5. Drinking Alcoholic Beverages

  • For many people having a drink is no big deal, or a social lubricant to be consumed in public on festive occasions. To people with particularly addictive personalities a drink is a gateway to relapse that is available in every bar, restaurant, convenience store and, in some countries, vending machine. Alcoholics cannot stop with just one drink, while many addicts have suffered a loss of control that leads to relapse after drinking alcohol.



    The best idea is to avoid situations where the recovering addict might be exposed to inebriation, such as bars, nightclubs, parties and other hangouts. You may want to ask them to participate in a non drug related activity such as sports (unless they struggle with eating disorders, like anorexia), bird watching or arts and crafts. In the end the addict must decide to cease using on their own terms. Let them see there is a whole life full of people who do not take drugs and drink alcohol every day.


These are just five of the common warning signs of relapse. There is often more to the story for every individual. For more information, visit our guide to understanding relapse warning signs.

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