Content reviewed by Khelsea Walker

Recovery from substance use disorder (SUD) is a lifelong process, and completing treatment is only one step in it. Once individuals finish a treatment program, it is unrealistic to assume they are fully ready to navigate the pressures that exist outside of the treatment facility. To effectively abstain from substance use, individuals need to create and implement a long-term relapse prevention plan following treatment.

What Is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

A relapse prevention plan is a workable blueprint that helps individuals strengthen and protect their sobriety by actively taking steps to prevent relapse. Typically, these plans are developed throughout an individual’s treatment program with the help of a therapist or collaborative care team. As their sober life evolves, individuals should revisit and adjust their plan throughout their recovery journey.

Why Is a Relapse Prevention Plan Necessary?

Addiction is characterized by brain changes that facilitate compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using behavior. To recover from addiction, professional treatment is required. Treatment can not only help an individual rid their body of chemical toxins and achieve abstinence but also help them address and overcome the underlying causes of their substance use.

Still, recovery does not end once treatment is finished. Reversing the brain changes caused by substance use takes a lifetime, which is why recovery is considered a lifelong process. Therefore, a relapse prevention plan is necessary because an individual in recovery may be vulnerable to relapse at any point in their life.

Understanding Substance Use Disorder Relapse as a 3-Stage Process

Contrary to what one may think, relapse is not a singular event. Rather, it is a three-stage process that occurs gradually. The process often starts weeks or months before an individual reaches physical relapse. Getting familiar with each of these stages can help an individual better understand what to include in their relapse prevention plan. In this way, they will have thought through many scenarios and be prepared for whatever comes their way.

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse involves no conscious thought about using. Instead, it is characterized by emotional dysregulation, lack of self-care and risk-taking behaviors that could set one up for future relapse.

Emotional relapse may include the following warning signs:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Defensiveness
  • Anger
  • Intolerance
  • Mood swings
  • Skipping meetings
  • Not asking for help
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

In the second stage of relapse, an individual begins battling between using and not using. The warning signs of this stage include:

  • Glamorizing past substance use
  • Fantasizing about future substance use
  • Lying
  • Gathering with people with whom one used to use substances
  • Thinking about relapse
  • Planning a future relapse

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

Finally, the third stage of relapse can be either a one-time “lapse” or a fall back into chronic substance use. If an individual ignores or does not recognize the first two stages and does not take steps to reverse them, physical relapse can occur. At this point, one may need additional treatment.

What Is Included in a Relapse Prevention Plan?

While each individual’s relapse prevention plan will differ from another’s, there are several elements that most plans have in common.

Identifying and Managing Triggers

The first element or category that most plans include is a section identifying one’s substance use triggers as well as effective ways to manage those triggers. A trigger is any stimulus that causes an individual to remember their past drug use or consider using drugs again in the future. Triggers and coping skills can change and develop over time.

It is important to understand that triggers are both mental and emotional, pertaining to the first two stages of relapse. Likewise, a stimulus does not have to involve substances to be a trigger. A trigger can also be an emotion, environment, person, event or circumstance that causes an individual to feel compelled to use substances again.

When considering ways to manage triggers, it is important to have knowledge of various coping skills. Individuals can consider engaging in breathing techniques, having an exit plan and regularly attending group therapy meetings to prevent triggers from interfering with their sobriety.

Common examples of triggers, and potential ways to manage those triggers, can include:

  • Being around people who use alcohol and other drugs: Management techniques could involve avoiding these people or requesting that they do not use substances when one is present
  • Places that serve alcohol: Management techniques could involve ordering a “mocktail” in place of an alcoholic beverage or only visiting these places with a sober buddy who can hold one accountable
  • Being present in situations where conflict is high: Management techniques could involve removing oneself when conflict arises or practicing breathing techniques throughout the encounter

Methods of Continuing Care

Another section that should be considered is ways an individual will engage in continuing treatment, or long-term care. There are many things that individuals can do to stay engaged with treatment throughout their long-term recovery.

A few examples include:

  • Attending group therapy sessions regularly
  • Receiving individual counseling regularly
  • Adding mindfulness to your daily routine
  • Becoming a sponsor or a mentor

Ways to Overcome Cravings

Cravings are another problematic factor that can surface throughout one’s recovery journey. This aspect of a relapse prevention plan should acknowledge useful techniques that an individual can use when cravings arise. Remember, cravings are temporary and will pass.

Some examples may include:

  • Practicing mindfulness, such as acceptance
  • Using distractions
  • Engaging in exercise

Exit Plans

Emergency exit plans offer a way out when individuals find themselves in situations that could jeopardize their recovery. To be effective, these plans should be utilized during situations of high stress or anxiety as well as when alcohol and drugs are present.

A few exit strategies include:

  • Setting a curfew before attending an event
  • Having a friend, mentor or therapist on speed dial that one can call if one needs a way out
  • Removing oneself from the trigger as quickly as possible

New Hope Ranch is a men’s-only addiction treatment facility that understands the importance of relapse prevention plans for long-term recovery. We help our patients curate such plans while they are in treatment and can help adjust them as necessary throughout recovery. We offer a range of services to help men recovering from addiction. To learn more, call (737) 600-8565.