All You Need to Know About Alcohol Relapse

While opioid drugs have taken the majority of headlines, alcohol remains the country’s most dangerous drug. According to informationprovided by SAMHSA, approximately 88,000 Americans die each year as a result of alcohol abuse. For those who are able to find treatment and get sober, alcohol relapse is an unfortunate and common reality they face.  

It is estimated that 90 percentof alcoholics will experience at least one relapse within the first four years of their recovery. The specter of alcohol relapse is always present in sobriety, but it doesn’t have to become a major obstacle.

While alcohol relapse is an accepted part of the recovery process, there are ways its impact can be minimized or even eliminated. This article defines alcohol relapse, reasons for relapse, and the stages and signs of relapse. Additionally, the article will provide ways you can minimize alcohol relapse in your recovery.

Relapse Defined

An alcohol relapse is simply the return to drinking after a period of abstinence. When relapse occurs, it creates intense feelings of guilt and shame. If users don’t immediately address the underlying causes for their relapse, they will find themselves trapped in a cycle of abuse that will see their physical and mental health worsen—and they can even die. 

When talking about alcohol relapse, it is important to make the distinction between a slip and a relapse. A slip is when a person resumes drinking, but addresses and resolves the underlying issues that led to their lapse. On the other hand, a relapse signals a return to regular chronic use of alcohol and full-blown addiction. 

Reasons for Alcohol Relapse

There are various reasons why relapse occurs. The following are the most common reasons for alcohol relapse:


Stress is perhaps the number one reason why people relapse and return to alcohol use. Common sources of stress face include loss of a loved one, financial burdens, and family tensions. While we perceive stress as negative, there can be stressors that can come from positive events. These can a job promotion or entering a new intimate relationship 


Another reason why alcoholics relapse is complacency. Complacency occurs when people become too confident in their recovery. While there is no problem in being confident, alcoholism is a cunning and powerful condition. If someone in recovery feels they are “cured” they can run into trouble. When alcoholics become complacent, they may feel that one drink won’t hurt. While the first drink may not immediately send them down the spiral, it puts into motion the thought that drinking is acceptable.


Lying is a difficult habit to break for addicts across the board. The addict relies on lying, dishonesty and manipulation in order to keep alive and growing. If people in recovery have problems being honest in their recovery, the chances of an alcohol relapse significantly increase.

Unrealistic Expectations 

Another source of alcohol relapse is when people have unrealistic expectations for their recovery. Recovering addicts want their sobriety to happen “right now. If they feel they aren’t recovering “fast enough” they feel they have failed—and it sets the stages for “stinking thinking” that can lead to relapse

Relapse—It Occurs in Stages

Relapse isn’t a singular event; it is a process that develops over a considerable period of times. A relapse back to alcohol can be seen as occurring in three stages:

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the first and most subtle stage. In this stage, recovering alcoholics may not be actively thinking about drinking, but there are tell-tale behaviors they exhibit which can lead to relapse if not immediately addressed. These behaviors are unhealthy and are taxing to the mind and spirit of the recovering alcoholic. The most common of these behaviors include:

  • Resentment
  • Anxiety
  • Prolonged anger
  • Isolation
  • Insomnia
  • Defensiveness

People experiencing emotional relapse will start to neglect essential self-care such as proper diet, restful sleep and consistent exercise. As a result, their confidence in their recovery erodes.

Mental Relapse

The second phase of alcohol relapse is mental in nature and marked by increasing thoughts of drinking. The cravings to use alcohol start to increase in both frequency and intensity, and the stresses of everyday life become less manageable. Those in this mental stage of relapse will start romanticizing their past and yearn for the good times. This stage is marked by the following:

  • Hanging out with friends and acquaintances with which you used alcohol and other drugs
  • Fantasizing about using and about relapsing
  • Lying and manipulation

If these signs are not dealt with, the pull to resume drinking grows stronger and stronger. They will start lingering in front of taverns or at houses or other places where they used to drink. The urge to say “no” becomes weaker. 

Physical Relapse

The final stage in alcohol relapse is the actual moment a person resuming drinking. For those who relapse, they do so because the feelings and emotions that have built up over time have become too powerful to overcome. The use of alcohol has been justified and those who were in recovery have talked themselves back into drinking despite their past and the dangers associated with relapse. 

As stated, relapse brings intense feelings of guilt and anger. These emotions have tremendous pull and can keep people stuck in its grip. If a person is unable to break free, these emotions will fuel their alcohol addiction further—and they will further spiral out of control. 

Alcohol Relapse Signs

As with any drug, the signs of relapse can be subtle and hard to detect. The signs of alcohol relapse can be related to other issues separate from alcoholism.  The following are the major signs of alcohol relapse that must be watched:

  • Gradual isolation from family, friends and social activities
  • Returning to environments and people that are unhealthy
  • The return of wide mood swings
  • The emergence and/or return of mental conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • Behavioral slips

As stated earlier, a slip can be seen as a lapse that can be a one-time event. When a lapse occurs, it is crucial for individuals to seek help from a counselor or sponsor and seek the support of a 12-step or other sober support group. 

Bouncing Back From Relapse

If a relapse is experienced, it’s easy to stay stuck in pity and shame. While these emotions are normal, dwelling in these emotion hinder the chances for recovery. The following are ways people can get back on the right track:


After a relapse back to alcohol use, it can be easy to point fingers at people and situations which you feel caused you to drink. No matter the situation, the alcoholic must realize they alone have the power to let people and situations control them. Being accountable means being totally honest and transparent not only with oneself but with others.

Get Support

It is highly advisable to increase the number of 12-step meetings or other sober support groups after a relapse. The resources and support these groups provide will empower and motivate those who have relapsed to get back on the path of sobriety. There is a strong sense of comfort knowing that others have experienced relapse and found their way back to happiness, health and recovery.

Being Aware of Triggers

In order to recover after a relapse, it is absolutely crucial those in recovery are able to identify and understand their triggers. A trigger can simply be thought of as anything that brings forth cravings and thoughts of using alcohol. Take an honest look at the people, places and events that create cravings and find constructive ways to deal with those triggers.

Refine Coping and Life Skills

If a relapse as occurred, it is important to put extra effort into refining and learning the coping and living skills needed to promote a healthy lifestyle.  In many instances, people fall victim to alcohol relapse because they aren’t able to deal with stress and negative thoughts and behaviors. It is important to work on these crucial skills with a counselor or sponsor. 

Practice Self-Care

Perhaps the most important part of recovering after relapse is to have a comprehensive and solid self-care regimen. This regimen includes eating a balanced and healthy diet and getting adequate restful sleep each and every night. Additionally, self-care needs to include a daily schedule that features activities such as exercise, quiet time and meditation, and hobbies that provide happiness and joy. Having supportive family and friends in the support system only helps strengthen one’s self-care regimen.

The Road to Recovery Begins Today

Are you or a loved one struggling with alcohol addiction? Have you or a loved one relapsed and need help getting back on track? If you have answered yes, call the addiction professionals at Drug Program Rehab Journal toll-free today. We will work with you in finding the treatment programs that best fit your needs.

Call us today at 1-800-205-1201. It is time for you or your loved one to leave alcohol addiction behind for good. 

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