Breaking Down the 3 Stages of Relapse 

August 29, 2023

4 mins

Never Alone Recovery


The journey to sobriety is a lifelong mission. A relapse represents a setback along the way, but it doesn’t mean failure.

The journey to sobriety is a lifelong mission. A relapse represents a setback along the way, but it doesn’t mean failure. It is important to learn and take the necessary steps to recognize the warning signs of a relapse and ultimately prevent it. Relapse prevention is achievable, no matter where the addict is in their process.

How can a relapse have stages? Relapse is more than the physical ingestion of the drug or substance; it’s an ongoing process divided into three distinct parts. If the addict or a loved one can recognize where they are in the relapse stage and avert it, the addict has a significantly better chance of maintaining sobriety long-term. 

The Stages of Relapse 

Relapse consists of three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. Physical relapse, the stage where the addict re-uses the drug or substance, is the most obvious. However, as part of sobriety's lifelong journey and daily commitment, the addict must understand all stages to succeed in their recovery. 

Emotional Relapse 

Emotional relapse is the first stage. Here, the addict experiences emotional triggers. Triggers occur and wreak havoc in the user's mind to break the will and undo the learnings established in recovery. Behaviors change as a result of the triggers to better align with the new emotional state, leading to the urge to use. 

Early Warning Signs of Relapse

The user and their support network can avoid relapse together. To do so, they must recognize the warning signs and act.

Bottled-Up Emotions 

In recovery, emotional regulation and expression are healthy ways to work through troubling thoughts. Suppressed or "bottled up" emotions create a tense environment for the user to erupt, often unexpectedly. This behavior can lead to the desire to use again or a full-blown relapse. 

Support Meeting Avoidance 

As emotions push the user in recovery toward relapse, the user becomes avoidant of helpful resources. Support meetings represent accountability. Guilt or shame will drive avoidance and the fear of disappointing their peers in recovery.

Focus on Others' Problems (at Expense of Self) 

Support for loved ones matters, but misplacement of that help as a way to avoid the user's issues is a red flag. Addicts must confront issues head-on when in recovery, especially at the start of a relapse.

Poor Eating and Sleeping Habits 

Sobriety treatments involve the development of the discipline to take care of oneself. An addict might use food as a coping mechanism, stay up late online, or sleep through alarms and miss work or school. If this disciplinary practice is broken or disrupted, the user or their support system should address it via a meeting or conversation to aid in the prevention of a relapse. 

Broken Sobriety Routine 

A user in recovery built healthy eating and sleeping habits to maintain discipline and create a stress-reduced lifestyle.

"When there is a lack of structure or unoccupied time, they return to their previously established positive supports." 

Refusal of Help 

If loved ones recognize the behavior change and voice concern, only to receive push-back or a rebuttal, the user might be at risk of relapse. The addiction-seeking brain "knows" its support network can keep them away from drugs. Because the brain drives the user to seek the drugs so severely, it will drive the user away from anything or anyone that will keep it from using. 

Mental Relapse 

As the addict begins to think about using again, the user enters the mental stage of relapse. In this stage, the user experiences a desire to use while having guilty feelings about their sobriety. 

Because the early parts of this stage are mental, the user and their loved ones may not notice until the behavior shifts toward use. Open and honest communication and the practice of accountability are critical here. 


Mental relapse includes fonder thoughts or memories about the people and places associated with past drug use. Sober recovery and treatment plans involve removing those people and places from the user's life, but the rose-tinted glasses of mental relapse paint them in a more positive light. 

Return to Old Habits 

The positive associations formed with past behaviors can lead users to reconnect with people they previously used drugs and alcohol with. Users might return to places and situations previously associated with drugs—triggers for use and abuse. 

Fantasizing and Planning 

During this process, the user imagines and fantasizes about using again as nostalgic memories weaken their resolve. At this stage, a user will craft a concrete plan to acquire drugs and alcohol.

The user's support network will hold them accountable despite the desire to start using again. While this is best for an addict in recovery, it doesn't feel that way to the user in the moment. Therefore, the user will plan around others' schedules to find a time and place where they won't get caught relapsing.

Physical Relapse 

Physical relapse is more than a one-time slip. An unfortunate setback, a physical relapse represents a larger issue. In a full physical relapse, the user abandons healthy coping mechanisms and returns to regular use. 

Why Do the Relapse Stages Matter? 

Most people only think about the physical stage of relapse, which is easy to understand. But the understanding of the first two stages is vital. Identifying relapse's emotional and physical stages helps the user return to treatment before further regression occurs.  

Never Alone Recovery is Here Before or After Physical Relapse

If you and your support network notice you moved into one of the three stages of relapse or if you've already returned to use, Never Alone can help. We provide a free addiction consultation to assess your case and if treatments like ours are right for you.

The free online support group will help you stay strong during emotional relapse, challenge your thinking, and bring you out of the mental stages. If you experience physical relapse, we'll help you find the right rehab for you. Call our toll-free number to learn about our programs. 

relapse, risk factors, support

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