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Relapse Prevention Therapy, or RPT, can be a powerful approach to supporting recovery.

Broadly, Relapse Prevention Therapy aims to empower you with coping skills and proactive strategies to navigate challenges and complexities in daily life without falling back into old patterns.

What Happens When You Relapse?

Relapse is a recurrence of a condition or behavior after you’ve had a period of improvement or you’ve been in recovery. Relapse is most often associated with addiction, but it occurs in other conditions, too, like mental health disorders and chronic diseases.

When you understand how relapse can progress, you can recognize the stages, hopefully empowering you to act earlier.

We tend to think of relapse as a single event rather than a progression with multiple stages, which is what it actually is.

The stages often occur as the following:

  • Emotional relapse: The initial relapse stage can be subtle and more challenging to recognize. It may include emotional distress, like higher stress levels, anxiety, mood swings or irritability. When you’re in this stage, you might not be consciously thinking about returning to substance use, but because of your emotional state, you may be more vulnerable to triggers of relapse.
  • Mental relapse: If emotional struggles intensify at this stage, you might experience growing cravings or urges to return to substance use, but there’s still a back-and-forth desire to maintain your recovery. During this time, you could find you’re thinking about relapse, engaging in risky behaviors associated with addiction, or you’re romanticizing your previous substance use.
  • Physical relapse: The relapse can be observed at this point as you might give into cravings and engage in substance use. It can mean a single lapse, or you might fully return to your previous addiction patterns.

Relapse progression is influenced by many factors, including biological, social, psychological and environmental triggers.[1]

Being under stress, having negative emotions, exposure to cues related to past substance use and a lack of coping skills can all be contributors to relapse.

Some specific reasons relapse might happen include:

  • Being around people, places or things linked to your addiction.
  • Underlying mental health disorders.
  • Being complacent or overconfident in your recovery.
  • Biological factors such as brain changes stemming from chronic substance use.

What Is a Relapse Prevention Therapy Program?

Relapse Prevention Therapy is a cognitive-behavioral approach. It helps you anticipate, identify and manage triggers, emotions, thoughts and behaviors potentially leading to relapse.

RPT was developed in the 1980s for addiction treatment, but now it’s also adapted in other contexts as well.[2]

Key principles of this therapy approach include:

  • RPT recognizes relapse as a predictable, gradual process occurring in stages. When you understand each stage and recognize warning signs, you’re equipped to take action before a lapse is a full-blown relapse.
  • You learn to identify high-risk triggers and situations. You can then create strategies to avoid them or effectively cope if avoidance isn’t possible.
  • RPT emphasizes the importance of strategies and coping skills, such as problem-solving, relaxation, and mindfulness practices. These are tools you begin to depend on when dealing with cravings, negative emotions or other relapse triggers.
  • During RPT, you work to improve your self-efficacy. This is your belief in your ability to cope with cravings and high-risk situations without substance use. Building confidence in your ability to overcome challenges and resist temptation helps strengthen your resilience.
  • As part of a Relapse Prevention Therapy program, you collaborate with your therapist to develop a relapse prevention plan tailored to your needs, triggers, risk factors and strengths. Your relapse prevention plan might include strategies to identify warning signs, seek support, cope with cravings and engage in activities for self-care.
  • As part of RPT, you’re encouraged to make positive lifestyle changes to support recovery goals, such as improving relationships, adopting healthy habits, and engaging in meaningful activities.
  • You’re encouraged to self-reflect, monitor your progress regularly, and assess it. This helps you identify vulnerabilities and adjust strategies to sustain your progress and minimize relapse risk.

You can receive Relapse Prevention Therapy in different formats, including individual counseling, self-help programs and group therapy. It’s also often integrated into comprehensive addiction treatment plans.

How Does RPT Work?

Relapse Prevention Therapy usually works similarly to the following:

  • You start with an assessment and goal setting. You work with a therapist to establish a collaborative relationship.
  • You learn about the nature of addiction and relapse and contributing factors. There’s an emphasis on educating you about the stages of relapse triggers and important factors in maintaining recovery.
  • Through exploration and reflection, you learn to identify triggers, cues, emotions, thoughts and behaviors that might come before a relapse.
  • You’re equipped with a toolbox of strategies and coping skills to manage triggers and cravings.
  • Working together with your therapist, you create a relapse prevention plan.
  • Therapy sessions often include rehearsal of relapse prevention skills and role-playing. Practice applying your coping skills in simulated high-risk situations, which can increase your confidence in your ability to manage challenges when you face them in real life.
  • You’re encouraged to generalize what you learn in therapy and apply it in different situations and contexts in your daily life.
  • Ongoing support, monitoring and progress maintenance are emphasized.

Relapse prevention Therapy offers a comprehensive, proactive approach to managing recovery challenges and maintaining positive change. By understanding the nature of addiction, identifying warning signs and triggers, and developing coping skills, you can effectively navigate different situations in your life.

RPT helps you build self-efficacy and resilience in your recovery journey. You can overcome setbacks and challenges and keep moving forward.

Relapse Prevention Therapy’s core philosophy is that you have control of your life with the right mindset, resources and support.

Find Help Now

Carolina Center for Recovery is a state-licensed and CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) accredited substance abuse treatment facility. We are a dual-diagnosis facility with a primary focus on substance abuse. Our drug and alcohol rehab center offers individualized, extended-term treatment in an intimate setting located in Charlotte, NC. We take a holistic approach to treating addiction, offering a variety of treatment modalities centered around identifying and resolving the underlying issues associated with the addiction.

Contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs or to get started with a confidential, risk-free assessment.

1. National Institutes of Health (NIH): Addiction Relapse Prevention

2. National Institutes of Health (NIH): Relapse prevention. An overview of Marlatt’s cognitive-behavioral model