Reaching out for help and getting the right kind of treatment are the first steps on the road to recovery. But for most people recovering from substance abuse, life after treatment is when the real challenges begin. Simply abstaining from a substance is not enough. Creating a new, substance-free life takes daily, and often hourly, commitment. Without this level of commitment to change, all the factors that contributed to the addiction still exist.

Practicing the drug-free life that began during detox and rehab on a daily basis is critical to relapse prevention. Some of the steps to maintaining abstinence include:

  • Learning to live in the real world without drinking or using drugs.
  • Working on the problems that substance abuse caused within your family, with your finances, at your job and with your friends.
  • Staying away from people and places associated with your substance abuse.
  • Learning what makes you want to drink or use again, so you can avoid those things.
  • Getting treatment for health issues that led to the substance abuse, such as depression, anxiety or other mental conditions.
  • Identifying relapse triggers and learning how to cope with the urge to use again in healthy ways.1

The person in recovery often sees setbacks as failures. This can lead to more using and an even greater sense of failure. If the cycle continues, he or she stops focusing on the progress he has made and begins to see the road ahead as overwhelming.2

Guarding Against Relapse

The chronic nature of substance use disorders means that relapsing at some point is not only possible, but likely. Relapse rates for people struggling with substance abuse are similar to relapse rates for other chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment has failed. For a person recovering from addiction, relapse indicates the need for more or different treatment.

“Recovery has been, without a doubt, the single most amazing gift I have ever given myself and the world and the people who love me. Where I was once a wrecking ball through the universe, today I get to be a light. I get to be the woman I was always intended to be. And I get to light the path for others, just like it was done for me back when I couldn’t see my way out of the darkness.” —Misty H., HeroesInRecovery.com

Preventing relapse requires a recovery-oriented approach. That means a humble attitude toward the power of the addiction and not taking one’s abstinence for granted is key. Having a realistic mindset with intentionality, self-discipline and personal vigilance against relapse is crucial to recovery success. Honesty, accountability, continued participation in self-help groups and keeping a careful watch on one’s own personal thinking and attitude are important parts of the process.3

Relapse prevention means the person in recovery must learn to manage negative or uncomfortable feelings without using any drugs. He or she must recognize in advance when she is headed toward a relapse and respond by changing direction. Relapse is a process that actually begins before any substance use. With education, the person in recovery recognizes the signs of a return to alcohol or drugs. These red flags can be obvious, like running into someone associated with the addiction, or subtle, like negative changes in attitudes, feelings and behaviors. With practice, identifying unhealthy situations and staying on course in recovery becomes easier.4

Reevaluating Relationships

Happy group of friends with arms raisedNurturing positive, healthy relationships are an important part of recovery. Damaging or unhealthy relationships can push a person back into addiction. In some cases, a total relationship makeover is necessary for continued success. The person in recovery needs to identify positive relationships with recovering or non-drug-using people who will be supportive. He or she should feel free to call on these individuals for social support as needed. Support groups or 12-Step programs are vital in the prevention of relapse. Other positive social involvement, such as religious or recreational organizations, can also be very beneficial.5

The irony of addictive disease is the damage it does to those closest to the person struggling. It’s horrifying to watch someone you care about self-destruct. Crippled by fear, anger and overwhelming grief, families and friends either stay helplessly entangled in the addict’s illness – trying to control the uncontrollable – or they separate emotionally. Either way, the relationship is damaged, and sometimes beyond repair.

Although early recovery restores hope, re-establishing trust with loved ones requires the person struggling to do two things: stop using drugs and alcohol and change his or her bad behavior. The person in recovery might wonder how long it will take to mend broken relationships. The answer is, as long as it takes for friends and loved ones to forgive and begin trusting the one in recovery. It is a long process that is a life-long commitment to a one-day-at-a-time journey.

Finding Help for Substance Abuse

With the right tools and support, success after treatment is possible for the person in recovery. That journey begins when the person struggling with addiction realizes he or she needs help. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, we are here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.


1 “Why Is It So Hard to Quit Drugs?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Easy to Read Drug Facts. 19 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 July 2017.

2 Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Sept. 2015. Web. 05 July 2017.

3 “Treatment and Recovery.” NIDA. July 2014. Web. 05 July 2017.

4An Individual Drug Counseling Approach to Treat Cocaine Addiction.” NIDA – Publications: An Individual Drug Counseling Approach to Treat Cocaine Addiction. Web. 05 July 2017.

5 Ibid. Web. 05 July 2017.