Updated on 1/31/2023

When someone relapses, it is commonly believed that it was a rash decision that came out of nowhere. However, relapse is a slow process that develops over time before the person physically relapses. Understanding the stages of relapse and what warning signs to look out for can give people a better insight into how to catch it in its tracks and stop it from happening. 

What is Relapse in Addiction Recovery?

Various treatment centers and professionals have numerous definitions for relapsing, but generally, it can be defined as “a recurrence of symptoms of a disease after a period of improvement.” After some improvement in treatment, a relapse is when the individual takes a step back or has a recurrence of symptoms of addiction. Relapse generally happens in three stages rather than being one single event.

The Three Stages

Relapse typically occurs in three distinct stages that happen over time and progressively get worse. These three stages are crucial to understanding this process and looking out for someone who may be in the process of relapsing.

#1 Emotional Relapse

Relapse begins emotionally, meaning that the person isn’t actively thinking about using drugs or alcohol during this stage. Instead, their emotions and behaviors are worsening and can lead to relapse later on. There are certain signs to look for if a person is emotionally relapsing, such as:

  • Mood swings
  • Isolation
  • Poor sleep schedule
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Poor self-care
  • Not using coping mechanisms to manage complex emotions
  • Not going to meetings
  • Going to meetings but not participating
  • Holding in one’s thoughts and feelings
  • Avoiding one’s own problems
  • Not engaging in sober fun

It is helpful for an individual to ask themselves some questions to gain awareness through self-reflection to prevent getting stuck in the first stage of relapse. Journaling is an excellent place to start. Once they recognize the behavior of emotional relapse, they can overcome it.

It is essential to change behavior, make an effort to be more positive, take care of yourself and engage in recovery activities to overcome emotional relapse. Otherwise, a person may fall into the second stage of relapse.

#2 Mental Relapse

If a person doesn’t change their behavior during the first stage, they can fall into the stage of mental relapse. During this stage, a person may be fighting with themselves over whether or not to use drugs or alcohol. They may even think about using more often and feel the urge to escape. Common signs of mental relapse include:

  • Experiencing cravings
  • Fantasizing about using
  • Bargaining times it would be “okay” to use
  • Planning physical relapse
  • Glamorizing drug or alcohol use
  • Minimizing the consequences of using
  • Thinking they can control their use

At this stage, a person is at high risk for physical relapse. Engaging in relapse prevention techniques is an excellent way to halt the process and bring the person back to a healthy state in their recovery. A person may want to consider:

  • Talking to a trusted peer
  • Waiting for 30 minutes
  • Taking sobriety one day at a time
  • Using relaxation techniques

If a mental relapse is not dealt with, it can lead to physical relapse. 

#3 Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the third and final stage and involves the person actively using drugs or alcohol. This is when it is critical to reach out for help to stop the cycle before the individual falls back into active addiction. Relapsing does not mean they have failed, just that the individual needs to reevaluate their coping methods and behaviors. 

Warning Signs of Relapse

While each stage has its own warning signs, there are general relapse warning signs to look out for. These can help you notice a person who is struggling more clearly. Common warning signs of relapse include:

  • Glamorizing past drug or alcohol use
  • A false sense of control over use
  • Hanging around old people and places associated with past use
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Isolation
  • Not going to meetings
  • Not engaging in sober fun
  • Doubting the recovery process
  • Feeling more stressed than normal
  • Experiencing depression

Reaching Out

Relapse is preventable if it is caught early, and anyone can help bring someone out of the darkness and back into the light of recovery. Many individuals often feel ashamed when they relapse at any stage and therefore refuse to ask for help, but this only worsens matters. The best thing to do if you are thinking about using again is to reach out for help either to a sponsor, a sober friend, mental health professional or a treatment team. This way, you can get the help you need, and relapse prevention can be implemented before you physically relapse. Relapse is preventable; don’t wait until physical relapse occurs.


Relapse is an unfortunately common part of the recovery process for many people healing from addiction. While it is common, that does not mean you have to go through it. Learning the three stages of relapse and what warning signs to look out for can help you stop yourself or someone else from disrupting sobriety. At Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford, a New Jersey rehab center, we have vast experience in preventing relapse and helping those that have gone through it. We can get you back on your feet and find the joy that sobriety brings. Call us today for more information at (877) 557-5372. Together we can prevent relapse and find joy in sobriety.