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The Link Between Drug Relapses, Addiction And Stress

Anyone moving through the recovery process knows that relapse is common for most addiction sufferers. For instance, relapse rates for individuals with substance abuse disorders have been estimated to be as high as 40 to 60%. In fact, relapse rates are so excessive that many recovery groups view relapsing as a natural part of the recovery cycle. One of the main contributors to these heightened rates is the fact that addiction sufferers aren’t always equipped with the best techniques and knowledge to handle the stress of their daily lives. As such, when a particularly stressful event occurs, they revert back to managing their extreme stress the best way they know how: by using. That’s why many rehab centers incorporate stress management into their recovery programs. By focusing on how to cope with stress and what to avoid when life throws you a curveball, such programs make relapsing less and less likely for their patients. Before getting into what stress management techniques to use to decrease the likelihood of relapsing, let’s first take a deeper look at what relapsing really is, as well as the unique relationship between addiction and stress.

What is Relapsing?

The technical definition of relapse is the return of a disease or illness (in this case substance abuse) after a period of partial recovery. As noted earlier, relapse is quite common when it comes to substance abuse recovery. In fact, some studies have shown that 70% to 90% of individuals in a recovery program will experience “at least one mild to moderate slip”. Now, it’s worth noting here that “relapsing” and “slipping” are two drastically different terms. A slip, for example, is an instance where an addict briefly returns to using. This could mean simply a few hours of use or using just a single time during recovery. Relapse, on the other hand, involves abandoning the process of recovery completely. So, while a slip can be thought of as a hiccup in the recovery process, a relapse is giving up on it entirely. Relapsing can either lead to returning to the state of using permanently or it could only be a period of a few days until the individual begins recovery again. Although many recovery programs may stress that a slip or relapse is often a part of the recovery process, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it isn’t something that you should avoid. In fact, while a slip doesn’t always lead to a full-on relapse, it can be the first step in many that can lead to the eventual abandonment of the entire recovery process.

Stress, Addiction, and Relapse

Stress is a common part of everyday modern living. Whether it comes in the form of trying to get to work on time, cramming for an upcoming test, or struggling to make rent this month, stress is everywhere you look. And while some people are able to cope with their stress in a healthy way, doing so is especially difficult for sufferers of substance addiction. Part of this is due to the high likelihood that substance abuse is being used in place of actively dealing with stress. If, for example, an individual just experienced the death of a parent, they might turn to discussing their feelings with friends, family, or perhaps a support group. Over time, doing so may help that individual feel better about their situation and return to living a productive life. A substance abuser, on the other hand, might handle the same situation by using rather than coping with such stress through healthier techniques. When a substance is being abused in order to actively deal with stress, as in this situation, the abuse itself is built on a foundation of stress. That means that any time a major stressor is introduced into their lives, an addiction sufferer’s first reaction will likely be to start using again. This makes it especially important to incorporate stress management into recovery programs.

Addiction Sufferers: A Stressful Life

Besides the fact that stress itself can end up being a trigger to start using again for many addiction sufferers, the act of living with a substance abuse problem alone can add more stress than most people have to endure. If the first place, many people who end up entering into recovery programs are doing so because they’ve either been pressured to do so by friends or family, are ordered to by a court, or have hit what’s known as “rock-bottom” and have made the decision to do so themselves. What each of these three situations have in common is the fact that something drastic usually has to happen before an addiction sufferer seeks help. In one way or another, then, the life of a substance abuser is likely to be built on a bit shakier ground than most. As such, coping with and mending failed relationships, restoring a career in jeopardy, or struggling with the deteriorating health that resulted from extensive substance abuse can be an enormous source of stress on its own. If there is legal trouble involved as well, court costs, fees, probation requirements, and community service quotas can all contribute to even more added stress. Beyond the stressful effects of substance abuse itself is the fact that many addiction sufferers often have an unrelated mental illness. Here are just a few alarming statistics showing the correlation between mental illness and substance abuse:

  • Almost 30% of people with a mental illness also have a substance abuse problem.
  • Just over 36% of individuals with an Alcohol Use Disorder have a mental illness.
  • The rate is higher for those with Substance Use Disorders – 53.1%.
  • People who are addicted to drugs have a twice the risk of depression.

It seems clear, then, that mental illness and substance abuse go hand in hand a lot more often than most people think. So, what does this mean for an addiction sufferer going through the recovery process? It means that in addition to the stressful situation substance abuse has put them in, they are also more likely than most people to already have a mental illness that could contribute to an even more stressful day-to-day life. Given this information, it is imperative that addiction sufferers find ways to not only reduce the amount of stress they encounter on a daily basis but also equip themselves with a variety of techniques and strategies to cope with stress. Doing so can increase the odds of full recovery and reduce the likelihood of complete relapse.

Reducing Stress: The Key to Preventing Relapse

One of the best ways to beat the odds when it comes to sticking to a sober life is by controlling your stress levels. Now, anyone leaving a recovery program knows that there’s no way to avoid stress entirely. In fact, encountering stress is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change your life around to reduce the amount of stress you encounter every day. The exact choices an addiction sufferer might make to do so will of course vary. It could mean spending a few weeks staying at your parents’ house. Or deciding not to get involved in a romantic relationship for a period of time. It might even mean passing on a promotion at work. What’s important, though, is to make recovery and dedication to sobriety the number one priority. If the other areas of your life have to take a break on the backburners for a bit, that means you’ll have more focus and willpower to deal with cravings to return to using. Reducing stress also means trying to avoid past triggers as much as possible. These triggers could be an infinite number of things, from bars and house parties to certain people and even types of food. What matters is that addiction sufferers are able to identify these triggers beforehand and know how to avoid them in the future. Another tactic that can help you avoid stress and prevent relapsing is taking care of yourself. Get a good night’s sleep, keep a full stomach, be sure to maintain good hygiene. The better your body feels physically, the less impact life stressors will have on your psyche. You should also try to actively stay in a good mood. Being consistently angry or isolating yourself completely can lead to a spiral of depression and frustration and make the temptation of using even stronger. A good rule of thumb is to stick to the HALT method: never letting yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

Coping with Stress

As mentioned earlier, stress is inevitable. Taking the steps to prevent it from occurring is incredibly important in order to avoid a relapse but another crucial strategy is knowing how to cope with stress when it does arrive. Regular attendance at meetings and counseling sessions is key here. Many addiction sufferers tend to slowly become more and more confident in their ability to stave off cravings and decide to drop their support system as a result. But these same individuals are more likely to give in to temptation once they let their guard down. Sticking to your meetings can ensure you won’t be caught off-guard by an unexpected desire. Developing a personal relapse prevention plan is one of the best ways to build up a strong support network. It involves several steps such as:

  • Staying in touch with your sponsor
  • Knowing which sober friends and family members to call when you’re afraid of relapsing
  • Participating in aftercare programs
  • Attending meetings
  • Performing self-evaluations that take into account your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and other details that occurred before past substance abuse

Having a carefully laid out plan in place can give you a variety of options to work with when you are feeling especially tempted and can make relapsing completely far less likely. There are also a many different stress management techniques that you can use that don’t necessarily involve substance abuse. For example, finding an outlet to relieve your stress can be a powerful way to reduce your addiction anxiety. Expressing yourself through art, for instance, can be a great way to either separate yourself from your anxieties or find new ways of understanding them. Practicing regular meditation is another way to manage your stress levels. It can help you get in touch with your physical body and identify negative though processes that might lead to relapse. Another strategy to keep up your spirits and ward off stress is using daily positive affirmations. Doing so has been shown to help boost self-esteem in many individuals and is a quick and easy way to improve your mood.


Learning how to interact with and handle the world without the help of a substance is the key to preventing relapse in addiction sufferers. Using the techniques and strategies outlined above can let you both prevent and cope with the daily stresses of the world and help you live a happy, sober life.