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Learn / How to Help Someone Who Has Relapsed on Drugs or Alcohol

How to Help Someone Who Has Relapsed on Drugs or Alcohol

Sarah Shawaker
 August 16th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Relapse is an opportunity for growth and finding treatment that suits your needs.
  • Support a loved one by getting them treatment, showing empathy, & setting boundaries.
  • You can prevent relapse by being aware of triggers.

Relapse involves drinking alcohol or using drugs again after abstinence or successful recovery. Like other chronic diseases, addiction relapse is always possible. Relapse can happen at any time in the recovery process, including early stages or even after long periods of sobriety.

When relapse does happen, your loved one will need all the support you can provide. If you know someone who has relapsed, there are ways you can help. Your help can make a big difference in their life. Browse rehabs specializing in chronic relapse to give you an idea of how to help your loved one continue their recovery journey.

Understanding Relapse

In addiction recovery, relapse can often be part of the overall process rather than a failure. Addiction is a chronic condition1, and relapse does not mean that your loved one’s recovery is impossible. Instead, relapse provides an opportunity for learning and growth. 

This journey can help them identify triggers and areas that need attention in their recovery. Be aware of these common things that trigger relapse:

  • Environmental cues: Specific locations, objects, smells, or even certain people associated with their previous substance use can be powerful triggers.
  • Co-occurring disorders: People with addiction often have underlying mental health conditions2 such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. If these co-occurring disorders are not properly addressed and treated, they can significantly increase the risk of relapse.
  • Stress: High levels of stress can weaken their ability to cope and make them more vulnerable to relapse.
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms: If they haven’t developed healthy and effective coping mechanisms to deal with stress, manage emotions, or solve problems, your loved one might resort to their addictive behaviors as a way to cope with stressors.

Recognizing Signs of Relapse

Signs of addiction relapse can manifest in various ways, depending on the individual and their specific addiction. Here are some common signs to be aware of, so you can hopefully address this issue early on:

  • Behavior changes: They may become secretive, defensive, or dishonest. They may also isolate themselves, withdraw from social activities, or show a lack of interest in things they used to enjoy.
  • Mood swings: Emotional instability, mood swings, and irritability are common signs of relapse. They might also be anxious, depressed, or angry.
  • Justification: If they’re on the verge of relapse, they may begin to rationalize their drinking or drug use again. 
  • Reconnecting with old using friends: Reconnecting with old friends who are still drinking or doing drugs is a red flag.
  • Loss of interest in recovery: A noticeable loss of interest or commitment to recovery can be an indicator of relapse. They might stop attending therapy or support group meetings or disregard their relapse prevention plan.

Communicating with Your Loved One About Their Relapse

Sometimes, it just takes the right person to help someone kick start their recovery. So when you’re helping your loved one through their relapse, work on showing empathy. Active listening without judgment can help them feel supported. Having a reliable ally can make a huge impact.

When having these conversations, timing is everything. First, make sure the person you are talking to is not under the influence of any substances during these conversations. Next, have conversations with this person in a calm and safe atmosphere. This will allow them to feel more relaxed and comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings.

Blaming or criticizing them for their relapse can create defensiveness and hinder open communication. Instead, emphasize your support and understanding. Let them know that relapse doesn’t define their worth or undo the progress they’ve made so far.

Providing Emotional Support

Relapse can bring feelings of shame and guilt. Emotional support provides a safe space for your loved one to express their emotions and experiences without judgment. Feeling understood can help them recognize that they are not alone in their struggles. Sometimes, people just need to be heard without receiving immediate advice or solutions.

Creating a supportive and non-enabling environment for someone in addiction recovery is crucial for their well-being. After educating yourself on addiction and the recovery process, you can create a caring home for your loved one to come back to. You can also support them by adopting a healthy lifestyle that complements their recovery. Encourage regular exercise, nutritious eating, and adequate sleep. Offer to participate in activities together that provide alternative outlets for stress and anxiety.

Be mindful of enabling behaviors that inadvertently support their addiction. This can include providing financial support for their unhealthy lifestyle, making excuses for their behavior, or covering up the consequences of their actions. Instead, focus on supporting their recovery and encouraging self-sufficiency. And celebrate milestones because recognizing their progress reinforces their commitment and boosts their self-esteem.

Assisting with Treatment and Recovery

While relapse can be common, it’s still a tricky situation that requires immediate attention. After you talk to your loved one, and they agree to get treatment, you can help them find the best treatment for their needs. 

Whether this is their first relapse or not, residential rehab may be in the cards for them. Here, your loved one can separate from triggers and distractions in their day-to-day life and focus on recovery. They’ll likely participate in a variety of evidence-based therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This will help them change any unhealthy thought patterns or behaviors that might’ve contributed to their relapse. And many rehab centers will offer holistic therapies and activities, like yoga, to help them connect their mind and body. 

Ongoing care will be important for your loved one. Outpatient treatment can help them transition back home while still providing some structure. They’ll continue building vital coping skills for stress and negative feelings, without using substances. And outpatient programs allow them to go to school or work. This is a great option for those who cannot fully give up those commitments.

Reconnecting with support networks, such as support groups or 12-Step programs like AA or NA, can be a helpful piece of their journey, too. You can even offer to help them find these groups or attend them, too, if they feel comfortable with that. Being part of a supportive community can provide valuable insights, encouragement, and accountability during the recovery process. And they can lean on others for support who have been in similar circumstances.

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries can help maintain a healthy relationship dynamic and prevent enabling behaviors. For example, you can express that you won’t participate in activities or situations that enable their addiction, but you’ll support their recovery efforts. You can encourage their recovery efforts by helping them find appropriate treatment, celebrating milestones, and staying consistent with your support. Boundaries help create a healthy and balanced dynamic while providing a framework for sustainable progress.

Not only is setting boundaries during their recovery important for your loved one, but this is also essential for you. Supporting someone in addiction recovery can be emotionally demanding. Take care of yourself by setting healthy boundaries, seeking support from others, and practicing self-care. Your own well-being is crucial to being an effective support system.

Dealing with Relapse Triggers

Identifying addiction relapse triggers is an important step in relapse prevention. You can find these by:

  • Paying attention to your loved one’s emotional cues (like mood swings)
  • Recognizing high-risk situations (their stressors)
  • Reflecting on their past relapses (what triggered them in the past?)

Developing healthy coping strategies can ease the impact of their triggers. For a while, drinking alcohol or using drugs was your loved one’s coping strategy, even though it was an unhealthy one. Finding positive ways to deal with stress can prevent a trigger from greatly affecting them.

Prevention is much easier than dealing with the after effects of relapse. You can help your loved one create a relapse prevention plan to maintain long-term recovery. This might include being aware of triggers, developing healthy coping mechanisms, building a support network, and making lifestyle changes.

Encouraging Continued Recovery

Your loved one will deal with uncomfortable feelings and situations for the rest of their life, just like all of us do. Creating sustainable habits to manage discomfort is key during their journey.

Motivation to continue their recovery comes from not only within, but also from others around them. Sometimes, they’ll need a “pick me up” from you or someone else, and that’s okay. The support network your loved one will build requires effort and reciprocity. Nurturing these relationships involves active listening, offering encouragement, and celebrating each other’s successes.
Recovery is a journey, and with the right support and treatment, your loved one can continue moving forward toward sustainable sobriety. Recovery is, in fact, possible. Explore centers that specialize in treating chronic relapse to open up new doors for you and your loved one.

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