During treatment, people suffering from a substance use disorder are counseled to understand that their condition, according to medical experts, is a chronic and progressive medical condition. Even though there is no simple cure for addiction, the disease can be successfully managed and even sent into remission.

Continued abstinence is the key to improved physical and mental health in the wake of addiction. And yet, even once someone has made it through detox and successfully completed a course of therapy, they can still be vulnerable to lapses and, ultimately, to relapse. By understanding how to identify the signs of an impending lapse, people in recovery can plan ahead and stay aware, minimizing the chances of slipping back into old patterns that lead to a lapse.1

What Is a Lapse?

Sometimes people in recovery experience what’s commonly referred to as a lapse. A lapse refers to a one-time return to use of a substance after addiction treatment. A lapse is a breach in the recovery process, but it needn’t derail the recovery journey.

The most important thing to remember is that a lapse does not mean treatment failed. If a person responds to the lapse by staying positive and quickly returning to treatment to identify missing sobriety skills, then their chances of a smooth transition back into abstinence are high.

What Is Relapse?

A relapse goes beyond a single incident and involves a return to using a substance, despite negative consequences. Relapse is not uncommon. In fact, people who experience an addiction and seek treatment have a relapse rate of 40-60 percent on average.

In cases of relapse, the medical opinion is that the person requires additional treatment, just as if they experienced a relapse of other disease such as diabetes, asthma or hypertension. Relapse does not mean that treatment has failed; it does mean the person requires further treatment.

Stages of Relapse

Addiction specialists note that relapse doesn’t typically happen overnight.2 Instead, it involves three fairly predictable stages.

1. Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse is the emotional stage. A recovering individual who is in the emotional stage of relapse will experience negative emotions like anger, sadness or fear. Negative emotions can be a trigger for relapse, so it’s essential that during therapy people learn healthy ways of coping with these feelings before they could lead to the second stage of relapse, the mental stage.

2. Mental Relapse

During the mental relapse stage, the person begins to actively think or even fantasize about using drugs or alcohol. They may revisit old social circles that are not conducive to their recovery journey. They may visit places where they know drinking and drug use are taking place.

3. Physical Relapse

The final stage of relapse is when the person actually uses drugs or alcohol.

Recovering from an addiction has its ups and downs. Some people do not suffer a lapse or relapse post treatment, but some people do. It’s important for individuals who lapse or relapse to remember that they should not despair or give up on their recovery journey. By seeking additional therapy, they can unravel the reasons for their relapse and reclaim their recovery.


  1. https://psychcentral.com/lib/relapse-prevention/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/