Preventing Relapse: How Strong Is Your Safety Net?
If you are working to overcome an addiction to drugs or alcohol, here’s a basic truth: No one can do it for you. But here’s another: Others can help, and you’re much more likely to make it to successful recovery if you have a strong safety net in place.
That means establishing connections to people and tools now that can help you later when challenges come. And if there’s one thing you can count on when picking up the pieces after damaging substance use, it’s that challenges will come.
Think about your safety net. Is it strong? Will it support you when you stumble? Will it help you get back on your feet as soon as possible if you fall? Each person’s safety net should be as individual as they are, but consider these key elements when building yours:
Getting sober is only the first step. The hard part is changing behaviors and dealing with the triggers and discomforts that can spark relapse. That’s where addiction treatment professionals, who can take the form of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, counselors, doctors, nurses, recovery coaches and others, can help. For example:
- They can educate you about the realities of addiction — that it is a brain disease that damages your ability to make good choices and control impulses — so that you can understand what you’re up against and learn strategies for counteracting it.
- They can connect you with the latest treatments and medications, things such as naltrexone to diminish alcohol cravings or neurofeedback to enhance brain function.
- They can help you recognize and treat any underlying issue that may have contributed to the addiction or developed as the result of it — and which makes recovery harder. Depression and anxiety disorders are common, for example.
Professional support can also help you develop internal motivation, and that’s what you’ll need most when the going gets tough.
Essentially, anyone you think will be a positive influence on your ability to maintain your sobriety can be part of the social support in your safety net — family members, friends, religious or spiritual advisers, coworkers and others. These are the people who will cheer your efforts and be there when you need a reminder of all you’re working toward.
And don’t just limit yourself to those you already know. This is a time to seek out others who know what you’re going through because they’re going through it too. There are countless places to turn: mutual support groups (both 12-step and non 12-step varieties), online support forums, and a whole range of organizations for those interested in sober activities, whether travel, sports, concerts, even sober tailgating.
Just as important as who you surround yourself with for social support, however, is who you don’t. Sadly, sometimes family and friends are part of the problem, not part of the solution, and the response must be to distance yourself as much as possible from the negative influence they can exert. Old friends you once used drugs with or drank with, for example, can trigger strong cravings to return to old ways. Protect yourself by keeping healthy boundaries as long as necessary.
A Relapse Prevention Plan
One of the best ways to prevent relapse is by creating a strategy for avoiding it. With a relapse prevention plan, you spend time analyzing yourself and your situation so you can recognize the things that are likely to challenge you in your recovery and react before things get out of control.
Such a plan also includes specifics about what you’ll do if you do relapse. While some may shy away from including such a pessimistic view, the reality is you’re not planning for failure, you’re planning for success. That’s because having a plan for when you mess up means you are more likely to get back on track rather than give up in despair.
A few key things go into making a relapse prevention plan:
- First, take a tough look at your addiction history. Seek patterns in your actions and ask yourself this crucial question: “What did I get out of my substance use, and how can I get it in more healthy ways?” For example, if your drinking helped you deal with stress, look into therapy, exercise, meditation or any number of other ways to address it.
- Make a list of red flags and triggers — things that indicate you are in danger of using. For example, what used to precede your substance use? Was it feeling lonely? Angry? Critical of yourself or others? If so, you now know to pay attention when these feelings return. You should also document anything that might act as a trigger and take steps to avoid it, whether it’s a song you used to listen to when high or the neighborhood you once visited to drink.
- Spell out your emergency relapse plan. This is another time to turn to your social and professional support network. Perhaps you can select a family member or friend who will help you arrange a return to treatment if you relapse. Or you can choose a way for your therapist to be alerted. Spell out now what you know will help you at a time when you are likely to be confused and conflicted.
These days, relapse prevention plans are a common part of addiction treatment and mutual support groups. If you’d like to craft your own, a variety of templates and workbooks are available that can serve as guides.
Crafting Your Plan
Of those who try to overcome an addiction to drugs or alcohol, an estimated 40% to 60% will relapse at some point, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That means you need to take advantage of everything you’ve got to beat the odds. Put together, these supports can become the basis for a powerful safety net, one that helps you focus on avoiding relapse but also one that acknowledges the reality of relapse and shows you how to keep it from beating you if it comes.