Understanding Relapse

A “relapse” is when someone returns to drinking after having stopped for a period of time. Here are some points to help you understand relapse:

  • Relapse is common as people work to overcome alcohol problems. Relapse is most likely to happen during periods of stress, or when someone is exposed to people or places that are associated with past drinking.
  • Just as some people with diabetes or asthma may have flare-ups of their disease, a relapse to drinking can be seen as a temporary set-back to full recovery and not a complete failure.
  • Professional treatments work to prevent relapse. Behavioral treatments (talk therapy) can help people develop skills to avoid and overcome triggers, such as stress, that might lead to drinking. Medications also can also be helpful for some people to deter drinking during times when they may be at greater risk of relapse.
  • When a patient experiences a relapse, their counselor should adjust their treatment plan accordingly. For some people, relapse is a powerful learning experience and helps to clarify the situations that they may not be ready to handle yet. For others, relapse signals a need for a different kind of treatment or more frequent treatment sessions. Treatment providers can help make these adjustments.