Addiction is a topic that is shrouded in confusion and has miffed health professionals for decades. In fact, it’s only over the last few years that we’ve started to recognize just how much of a mental health issue addiction truly is. And as this relationship has become clearer, it’s been interesting to study the role relapses play in the process of overcoming and succumbing to addiction.

What is a Relapse?

In the simplest form, a relapse is the worsening of a condition that had previously improved. In terms of drug or alcohol addiction, it’s a sudden return to a formerly abused substance after a period of abstinence.

While relapses aren’t preferred or encouraged, they’re actually quite normal. It’s common – even expected – that people overcoming an addiction will go through one or more periods of relapse before successfully giving up what they’re addicted to.

“Relapse is even considered a stage in the stages-of-change model, which predicts that people will cycle through a process of avoiding, considering quitting, taking active steps to quit and then relapsing,” writes Elizabeth Hartney, PhD. “Sometimes people will cycle through the stages several times before quitting.”

What Causes Relapses?

From a medical perspective, understanding what causes relapses is helpful in knowing how to prevent or lessen the impact of a setback. If nothing else, it provides a valuable glimpse into the mind of an addict and the challenges that exist with addiction recovery.

Let’s take a look at some of the culprits:


It would be nice if all causes could be easily controlled, but the reality is that certain factors are largely out of the addict’s control. Cravings are one of them.

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Cravings, whether physical or psychological in nature, are frequent among recovering addicts. And when you consider that most addicts suffer from underlying mental health problems, these compulsions can come and go for years at a time. Learning to curb cravings as soon as they emerge is key to long-term abstinence.


When a stressful situation arises, a person’s natural inclination is to seek self-soothing mechanisms. For a recovering addict, this often means returning to a comfortable crutch like drugs or alcohol.

Common stress factors that spark relapses include financial issues, relational problems, or health issues. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy manner is key in avoiding frequent relapses.

Lack of Sleep

Did you know that sleep plays a major role in addiction recovery (at least for alcoholics)? According to data shared by Sagebrush Treatment Centers, 60 percent of patients with baseline insomnia experience frequent/recurrent relapses, while just 30 percent of those without insomnia do. In fact, sleep disturbances are higher while abstaining from alcohol, with 25 to 60 percent of patients in early recovery reporting some issues

By dealing with sleep issues, recovering alcoholics may find it easier to avoid relapses and enjoy a more stable process.


People often think they grow out of peer pressure, but it sticks with most people well into adulthood. Whether subtlety or overtly, social pressures can encourage addicts to return to addictive tendencies.

Re-engaging old relationships is one of the biggest challenges. While it may hurt to cut contact with close friends and family, this is often the best strategy for avoiding relapses.


Time is a funny thing. Whether you like it or not, it passes. Sometimes time can be a good thing for addicts, while other times it provides a false sense of security against an addiction.

The longer an addict remains abstinent, the more comfortable they get. This causes them to let their guard down a little. As a result, they’re more likely to try something – like one glass of wine with dinner, or a single cigarette with friends. As time passes, addicts need to keep their guard up and continue making smart choices that prioritize sobriety above all else.

Responding to a Relapse

As previously mentioned, relapses are fairly normal. The key is to limit the impact a relapse has on giving up an addiction. By understanding the triggers of relapse, addicts will be more cognizant of their weaknesses and how they should organize and structure their lives to avoid falling back into old ruts.