Learn / Mastering Relapse Prevention Planning: Your Guide to Sustained Recovery

Mastering Relapse Prevention Planning: Your Guide to Sustained Recovery

Sarah Shawaker
 June 6th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Creating a relapse prevention plan helps navigate future recovery obstacles.
  • You'll work on building coping skills, continue therapy, and foster community.
  • Your plan can shift as your recovery needs change, and that's okay.

Addiction recovery is a journey that extends beyond initial treatment, involving continuous commitment and proactive planning. Relapse prevention planning helps maintain long-term recovery by identifying potential triggers and creating actionable responses. This approach strengthens recovery for substance use disorders, behavioral addictions, mental health concerns, and other conditions. 

Our comprehensive guide outlines relapse prevention planning’s key components and practical steps for creating and implementing an effective plan.

Understanding Relapse Prevention

Relapse prevention planning helps people in recovery avoid relapse—which means using substances after a period of abstaining or reverting to unhealthy habits and thought patterns in mental disorders. Relapse prevention is a critical component in managing conditions1 like major depressive disorder, anorexia nervosa, substance use disorders, and other medical conditions. 

Relapse doesn’t always occur overnight. There are complex signs and precursory emotional, mental, and physical phases2. Emotional relapse begins with anxiety, anger, or isolation. Mental relapse involves cravings, minimizing consequences of the past, bargaining, lying, and planning a relapse. Then, the physical relapse happens: drinking again, refusing to eat, lapsing into a severe depressive state, etc. 

Not everyone in recovery will relapse, but it is often a part of the recovery process3—and that’s okay. Relapse prevention can help you address these obstacles and keep you on the right track.

Relapse prevention planning aims to recognize and address these signals before they escalate to the physical stage. It utilizes a cognitive behavioral approach to prevent a relapse and provide appropriate skills on what to do if a relapse does occur. Relapse prevention is usually a combination of education, coping strategy development, trigger identification, building support networks, and lifestyle changes. Each plan is tailored to meet personal needs.

The Components of a Relapse Prevention Plan

An effective relapse prevention plan covers multiple life facets. Essential components of a relapse prevention4 include:

  • Identifying triggers: Internal and external cues can be emotional (such as stress or anger), physical (such as fatigue), or environmental (such as certain social situations or locations). Recognizing these helps in strategizing how to manage or avoid them.
  • Coping skills: Effective coping strategies can help you deal with triggers before they cause a relapse. These strategies could include skills like deep breathing, mindfulness, or other stress management techniques. Additionally, you’ll learn skills to refuse offers of drugs or alcohol and strategies to escape high-risk situations.
  • Enhancing self-efficacy: Throughout relapse prevention planning, you are encouraged to make choices and contribute ideas to your recovery actively. Your care team may emphasize that recovery is not about willpower but rather skills acquisition. Empowerment from professionals can help you take charge of your future and well-being, fostering sustainable recovery. 
  • Psychoeducation: Understanding the nature of addiction, mental health disorders, and relapse, including its biological, psychological, and social aspects, helps in managing it effectively. 
  • Healthy routine: Maintaining daily healthy routines supports overall well-being and reduces the likelihood of relapse. You’ll find balance in regular exercise, a nutritious diet, adequate sleep, and engaging in healthy, sober hobbies. 
  • Support systems: You and your therapist will create a plan to build a support network that includes friends, family, clinical professionals, and support groups. This network provides emotional support, accountability, and a safety net in times of crisis.
  • Emergency plan: If you feel close to relapsing, your care team can help you create a detailed emergency plan. This plan will outline who to contact, where to go for help, and what steps to follow to stay safe.

Recovery is an ongoing process, so having the right tools can help you manage addiction or mental health conditions. Sustainable healing is built by small, everyday efforts.

Building Your Personal Relapse Prevention Plan

Creating a tailored relapse prevention plan involves a detailed, personalized approach. 

Reflect on Your Recovery Goals

You’ll want to begin planning by writing about 3 key recovery components: 

  1. Reflect on your recovery history. In treatment, what worked and what didn’t work? If you’ve relapsed before, what led to it? What were your triggers before you got treatment? Learn from mistakes of the past to make a realistic relapse prevention plan.
  2. Write down personal, relationship, and employment goals to highlight situations you want to be in and people you want to be around. 
  3. Identify your triggers—all the people, places, and things that could cause stress. Developing coping strategies for each trigger can empower you to live life without fear.

Coping Skill Development

There may be times when you experience uncomfortable feelings and situations; however, with the right tools, you can navigate through these moments. You may practice coping techniques such as breathing exercises, regulating emotions through journaling, saying “no” to situations that do not serve your recovery, and exercise. This can help you walk into any situation with confidence. 

Continuing Therapeutic Care

Attending outpatient care or talk therapy sessions can help you navigate foreign situations and continue skill-building. During individual therapy sessions, you’ll likely engage in various therapeutic methods like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

You may also participate in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) / Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and SMART Recovery. Peer support from those with similar experiences can maintain motivation in recovery5. Those healing from mental health concerns can find community in National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) support groups.

Structured Routine

Creating a daily routine that promotes physical and mental health, including regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and sufficient sleep, can bolster sustainable recovery6. A scheduling system, such as time blocking in a calendar, can help you avoid idle time that might lead to thoughts or behaviors associated with relapse.

Support Systems

Creating a support network with strong relationships is a foundational aspect of long-lasting recovery. Social support in recovery can reduce stress, increase self-efficacy, and motivate sobriety or remission7. Your relapse prevention plan can detail how you will connect with loved ones who supported you through the treatment process. You may make new friends through sober activities and groups. Try your best to plan regular get-togethers with friends and family, as avoiding isolation and bolstering these relationships can make recovery easier. 

“The opposite of addiction is connection.” –  Johann Hari

Emergency Plan and Contacts

In case of emergency, have a clear plan with proactive steps, such as calling a specific person, attending a support group meeting, or going to a safe place. You can keep a list of emergency contacts, including supportive friends, family, and healthcare providers.

Implementing Your Plan

A relapse prevention plan can be broken down into small, manageable steps. You can begin each day with a consistent morning routine that includes healthy, pro-recovery activities such as meditation, reading, exercising, or journaling. This sets a proactive, positive tone for the day and reinforces your commitment to recovery.

You can keep a daily planner and include time slots for activities that support your recovery, such as therapy sessions, support group meetings, or time with friends and family. Planning helps manage stress and avoids the chaos that can lead to relapse. Your planner can also help you track exercise, meals, and sleep.

Stay connected with your support network through regular check-ins via phone calls, texts, or in-person meetings. These connections provide strength and accountability, crucial for everyday recovery maintenance.

At the end of each day, spend time reflecting. Assess what went well and identify any challenges you encountered. Use this reflection to adapt your plan and prepare for the next day.

Monitoring Progress and Making Adjustments

All progress should be tracked and celebrated. You can have regular check-ins with yourself and your care team to ensure you’re engaging in activities that suit your current recovery needs. What may have worked in the beginning of your recovery might not serve you years down the road. Try writing answers each month for questions such as:

  1. What were your main goals when you created your relapse prevention plan? How well do you feel these goals are being met?
  2. In what ways have you changed since leaving primary treatment? Consider your habits, thought patterns, emotional responses, and relationships.
  3. What are the most significant challenges you’ve faced during your recovery process, and how have you addressed them? How has your relapse prevention plan supported you in these challenges?
  4. What new coping strategies or skills have you learned through your relapse prevention plan? How effectively are you able to apply these in real-life situations?
  5. In what areas do you feel you still need to grow or improve? How can your relapse prevention plan or other resources assist you in these areas?

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Relapse prevention planning aims to provide useful tools for navigating difficult moments in recovery. Anticipating potential obstacles and feeling confident in your ability to manage them can help you move through life optimistically. 

Often, those in recovery may feel overwhelmed at social gatherings, holidays, or certain places because they trigger cravings or old behaviors. One of the best ways to manage this is by simply choosing not to attend the event; however, this is not always possible. You can plan ahead by bringing a supportive friend, having an exit strategy, and preparing responses to offers of substances.

Uncomfortable emotions, such as stress and loneliness, are a part of life, and implementing skills from your relapse prevention plan can help mitigate the impact of these feelings. You may find engaging in mindfulness and relaxation exercises like meditation and box breathing helpful. Consistent exercise can help reduce negative emotions8 and the chance of relapse. Keeping in touch with supportive friends and family can help ensure you always have a shoulder to lean on.

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Sometimes, it’s challenging to explain to new friends why you choose to abstain from drugs and alcohol. This can happen with long-time friends and family members, as well. If this person ignores your reasoning and continues to pressure you, this may signify that they do not care for your well-being as much as you do. It can be hard to distance yourself from others but know that there are people who will support your recovery efforts. And a true loved one will only want you to engage in activities that benefit your health.  

Communicating Boundaries to Your Support Network

Setting and communicating boundaries in recovery is important for your relationships and a practice of self-love. Without boundaries, you may say “yes” to things you don’t want to, avoid necessary conversations, and be consumed by others’ negative feelings. Prioritizing your boundaries ensures that you’re aligned with what’s best for your well-being.

Before communicating with others, take time to understand your own needs and boundaries. What specific support do you need? What behaviors or situations are helpful or harmful to your recovery? Being clear about these will help you articulate them more effectively to others.

Clarity is an act of kindness, so be honest and straightforward in these conversations with your loved ones. You can frame the conversation around “I” statements to express your feelings and needs without blaming others. For example, say “I feel overwhelmed when we talk about drinking at parties, and I need us to focus on other topics,” instead of accusing or blaming them. 

Stay consistent with your boundaries; this will help others respect them. Be sure to let loved ones know that you appreciate their trust. You can also encourage an open dialogue by asking for their thoughts and feelings about your recovery process. This can strengthen the relationship and make them feel involved and valued in your journey.

Ongoing Recovery and Maintenance

Maintaining recovery motivation is possible through small, concerted everyday efforts. It’s often easier to break down long-term goals into more manageable chunks, such as committing to a weekly support meeting and exercising 5x weekly. A recovery journal can document your thoughts, feelings, challenges, and successes. Reviewing your journal can visualize how far you’ve come and remind you why you started this journey.

A structured daily routine with adequate rest, proper nutrition, and movement can provide stability and reduce uncertainty. This can help manage stress and avoid situations where one might be tempted to relapse.

You can also learn new skills or hobbies to occupy your time, build self-esteem, and provide a sense of accomplishment. These new activities can serve as positive outlets for stress and boredom.

A day of sobriety is a day worth being celebrated! The effort to choose your health and well-being every day is a great feat, so continue to reflect and pride yourself on your hard work.

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