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Medically Reviewed

What are the Different Stages of Relapse?

- 6 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer:

Sahil Talwar, PA-C, MBA


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Addiction recovery is a lifelong process, not a final destination. Lasting sobriety requires a commitment to hard work, patience, and finding support.

The road to addiction recovery is usually not a straight path. Instead, your recovery will likely include setbacks, challenges, and moments of doubt. Relapse may also be part of your addiction journey.

A relapse happens when someone who has been sober begins to use addictive substances again. Relapses typically don’t happen “out of the blue.” Instead, there are many stages of relapse that begin long before someone reaches for drugs or alcohol.

Understanding the stages of relapse can help you recognize it and get help. In this article, we will explore the phases of relapse.

What you will learn:

  • The stages of relapse
  • The symptoms people exhibit during each stage of relapse
  • How to get back on track after a relapse
  • Where to find substance use disorder (SUD) treatment and support

If you or someone you love needs treatment or support during recovery, you are not alone. Contact the Carolina Center for Recovery specialists to learn effective relapse prevention strategies or to find treatment.

The Stages of Relapse: An Overview

There are three stages of relapse. Each stage has its own distinct characteristics and symptoms. Learning the stages of relapse and recognizing the symptoms can help you prevent it from going any further.

Here is an overview of the phases of relapse.

Stage One: Emotional relapse

Many people experience an emotional relapse before actually using addictive substances. During an emotional relapse, people may experience intense, uncomfortable emotions. They may abandon their healthy coping skills and support systems.

Some signs of an emotional relapse include:

  • Missing meetings, therapy sessions, or medical care
  • Neglecting hygiene and responsibilities
  • Eating poorly: skipping meals, binge eating, or resorting to an unhealthy diet
  • Skimping on sleep or sleeping too much
  • Isolating

Without getting help, an emotional relapse can progress toward the next stage.

Stage Two: Mental relapse

If people ignore the warning signs of relapse in the emotional stage, they may progress to a mental relapse. During a mental relapse, people may consider using drugs or drinking alcohol. They may fantasize about using addictive substances or even begin planning when and how they will use them.

Some signs of a mental relapse include:

  • Justifying their substance use: “I need to drink because work has been so stressful lately.”
  • Excusing their substance use: “It’s not that big of a deal. I quit once before, so I can quit again.”
  • Planning their substance use: “I will only use drugs while I’m on vacation.”

People may quickly progress from a mental relapse toward the final stage of relapse if they do not seek help.

Stage Three: Physical relapse

The final stage of relapse is a physical relapse. A physical relapse includes actually using drugs or drinking. It also consists of all behaviors that lead directly to substance use. These behaviors may include calling your dealer, driving to the liquor store, or sitting at the bar.

Recognizing the signs of an emotional, mental, and physical relapse is essential to long-term recovery. Knowing what to watch for can help you seek treatment as quickly as possible. Timely treatment can help you stay on track in recovery, even when facing significant challenges and setbacks.

What Leads to Relapse?

Some people may assume that a relapse happens in a single moment. However, there are often many factors contributing to it. People who relapse typically progress through stages before ever picking up a bottle or calling their dealer again.

Some things or triggers that can contribute to a relapse include:

  • Intense or persistent cravings
  • Denial about the severity of an addiction
  • Stress
  • Peer pressure
  • Emotional discomfort (anger, sadness, anxiety, boredom, etc. )

People may leave rehab feeling excited and optimistic about their futures, only to face unexpected challenges and setbacks. Others may leave rehab feeling unsure of their ability to stay sober.

Staying engaged in recovery by following a relapse prevention plan is essential. A relapse prevention plan can include resources like 12-step meetings and support groups, emergency contacts, and coping skills. Following your plan can help you prevent relapse.

A relapse is not the end of recovery. Instead, it is crucial to examine why a relapse occurred and take steps to prevent it from happening again. Thinking about a relapse as an educational experience can help you avoid becoming discouraged by it.

If you are experiencing symptoms of an emotional, mental, or physical relapse, seek help right away. Reach out to the specialists at the Carolina Center for Recovery now to find holistic, supportive addiction treatment programs.

Find Treatment Now

If you or someone you love struggle with substance abuse or addiction, you do not have to face it alone. The specialists at the Carolina Center for Recovery are here to support you as you navigate recovery. Our holistic treatment programs can give you practical and emotional support so that you can work toward lifelong sobriety.

Contact our intake team now to get started toward a healthier future.