Substance abuse recovery is not limited to just your initial detox and rehabilitation but, your life long recovery. Part of that preparation includes arming you with the tools to prevent relapse. In this guide we will discuss some of the ideas and mindsets you will learn in treatment and be reinforced to bring back to your life. This guide is helpful to those already in recovery and those looking to see what a relapse prevention program can teach you.
Some Techniques Learned in Recovery
As you may or may not know, the very moment that you think about using or drinking again, you are at risk of a relapse. Now, when you hear that word, relapse, the very sound of it probably gives you anxiety. First and foremost, you should alter that perception.
Although relapse is something that you want to prevent, if you spend mental energy thinking things such as, “Oh my goodness, what if I relapse?” or, “I hope I don’t relapse today,” or, “A relapse would be the worst thing ever!” you are actually preventing yourself from living a sober life.
If you know that relapse is not just a specific event, but actually, an extended process that consists of three stages, you’ll learn that relapse can be prevented if you have the tools and know the signs that you are headed for possible trouble.
So, know thyself. Recognize your emotions and do a consistent check in with yourself. How are you feeling? (No, not just hungry.) What was your last thought? (Not just, “What’s for dinner?”) And what is your body telling you? (Other than, “My stomach just growled.”)
There are actually three states of relapse. They are:
- Emotional (“Ugh, I’m sooo stressed out today!”)
- Mental (“Hmmm, maybe going to see that girl I used to smoke with wouldn’t be such a bad idea.”)
- Physical (“I’m too tired to go to therapy today.”)
It’s like a three-legged stool. If all three are in good condition, the chances of you relapsing are low (i.e., the stool won’t fall). If one leg of the stool (maybe you’re really upset about something) is broken, the chances of relapsing have increased. So, your job is to make sure these three legs are healthy and strong.
And you can do that with your mind, body and spirit. Here are some tips on how to stay balanced. Yes, one of them is to eat healthy and keep your belly happy.
Chapter 1: Get Your Mind Right
As we discussed in the introduction, relapse is a gradual process with distinct stages. During Rehabilitation you can learn how to recognize these stages. Another aspect to contend with is that your recovery is a process of growth and has different milestones. Each stage of recovery has its own distinct risks.
Therefore, you need to keep the tools that you have in your recovery toolkit sharp by continuing with therapy (whether one-on-one with a counselor or therapist) or in a group setting, including AA meetings or group therapy. Mind-body relaxation techniques are a great way to keep your thoughts healthy. So, what do you do when you find your thoughts going to a place where you, either start stressing out, or feel like you want to use again?
When you feel control slipping away, stop what you’re doing and breathe. Take a deep breath in through your nose and your mouth. Do this quickly at first and begin to slow down. This tricks your body into a ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and eases it out. This tells your body that the threat has passed, so that you can think clearly. If you have learned some breathing techniques in your therapy or at a rehabilitation facility, this is the time to put those lessons into action. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and you’ll start to see it really works.
Once you’ve relaxed and your mind is a bit more focused in reality and less on the perceived threat, you can think a little more rationally and start to use some good, old-fashioned self-talk to remind yourself why you’re in this situation in the first place. Remember to be kind to yourself. Here’s a quick example of what you could say to yourself:
“Susan, everything is OK. You are safe from harm. You have experienced some tough and challenging situations, but those are in the past. You can get past this moment because you are strong. So, what can we do to move forward?”
After you tell yourself something along these lines, you can start making a quick list of things to distract yourself and dive into. You should have a list handy of easy-to-start activities that you really like to do. If not, make that list now!
Identifying and Managing Triggers
Here’s a fast fact: Most people in recovery relapse at least once. In fact, up to 60 percent of patients who receive substance abuse treatment will relapse within one year. Now, this does not mean that you will relapse, and furthermore, this does not mean that you have explicit permission to relapse. It just means that relapse is normal, and recovery from that relapse should be on your list if you do indeed experience a relapse.
One of the best things to do is to know what your triggers are, know how to mitigate them, and then know what to do if you experience those specific triggers. Triggers can be people, places and even things that can immediately cause you to experience a craving or urge to use.
What makes triggers tricky is that you need to realize you will not be able to avoid or know all of your triggers. The mere scent of a food you used to eat when you were hungover, for example, could be a trigger. You cannot go your entire life not smelling or enjoying food. So, the best thing to do would be to consider how to manage high-risk situations where you might be triggered, and also what to do when you experience a trigger.
Triggers are so personal that only you can help yourself when you find yourself triggered. So, you need to get ahead of them and know what to do quickly. Here is a list of questions to get you started in identifying your own triggers. Since this explicitly deals with things that trigger your cravings, it may be best to work through these concepts with a counselor or a mentor.
- Who could I see that would remind me of drug use?
- What places did I use drugs that could trigger me?
- What paraphernalia did I use that I should avoid?
- Which emotions could make me want to use?
- What addictive thoughts could make me relapse?
- Which kinds of situations could make me feel like using drugs?
- What can I do if I cannot avoid things that trigger me?
Once you answer these questions, keep in mind that there isn’t just one warning sign. As discussed earlier, the stages are emotional, mental and physical. You could be extremely tired and have had a bad day. These two physical and mental states could make one of your triggers seem stronger and harder to overcome.
This is why it is important to keep an eye on how you’re feeling. If something is off, you need a little self-care, which is an important part of your recovery. Don’t be afraid to put yourself first.
We live in such a hurried world these days that it can be extremely challenging to relax. But, knowing how to relax, even if it takes a little time, can be just as important to your recovery and overall well-being as therapy, counseling or meetings.
Stress and anxiety: even typical day-to-day aggravations can trigger cravings. You should have at least 10 to 20 relaxation techniques that you can try at a moment’s notice. Take a moment and write down a couple that you know would work for you (including deep breathing). Here are some to get you started:
- Taking a hot bath
- Getting some brisk exercise
- Creative writing or journaling
- Painting or drawing
- Listening to music that makes you happy
- Practicing yoga
- Sitting meditation
You need to have a couple that can be done at a moment’s notice. For example, you’re in your car driving home from work and someone cuts you off. Maybe you’re so angry because of something else that also happened earlier in the day. You know you can’t take a hot bath (if that’s works best for you) until you get home. So, learning how to take some really good deep breaths or popping in a fun mix CD that you keep in your car could work for you. You have to get a little creative, but once you know what makes you feel good and is healthy, you’ll get the hang of it.
Follow Basic Rules
As with almost anything else, relapse prevention, when it comes to mental focus, has rules. If you learn to follow them, and practice them, this can be another tool for you to have on hand in your relapse prevention toolkit. Learning these rules is as easy as A, B, C, D.
- Ask for Help
- Be completely honest
- Change your life
- Diligent self-care
Chapter 2: Move Your Body
Quick test: How long has it been since you’ve been to the gym? How long since you stretched? OK, how about the last time you went for a run?
If it’s only been a couple of hours or days since you’ve gotten your body moving, gold stars for you. If it’s been a while, it’s about time you get started. Do it for you, do it for your health, and do it for your relapse prevention.
You can start small if you don’t exactly feel like you are gym rat material. In fact, it may even work to your benefit if a gym or workout routine hasn’t been a part of your past. Recovery includes starting a new life where you can rediscover a sober you. This sober you is active and tries new things. In addition, working out won’t be a trigger.
Some Suggestions on Getting Started
Many gyms have trial dates where you can go for 3 to 5 days to see how you like it. So, swing by a local gym and check it out. If, after the trial date ends and you’ve gone at least three times, it doesn’t work for you, don’t join. But, do make a promise to yourself that you will find another place or look for a community sports club to join.
Think back to your childhood. Which sports were you interested in? Did you play volleyball in high school? Did you want to learn lacrosse? Maybe you ran track back in the day and enjoyed it. Once you’ve given that some thought, do a quick search online for some community clubs. Courses offered by the local chamber of commerce or sponsored by your YMCA are good places to start. Many people are looking for fun things to do to keep themselves active. You’re not alone because you don’t want to drink or use.
If you don’t have a pet, maybe it’s a good time to adopt. Having a pet is a great excuse to get you out of the house so you can take your new friend for walks or take him or her to the park. If it’s not a good time for you to commit to a four-legged family member, but you do love animals, then head on over to your local shelter and volunteer to walk some dogs on your time off. This keeps you active and, at the same time, socializes the dogs for their new owners. Win-win!
Other Creative Outlets
Ok, so maybe you’re not the gym type or you’re allergic to dogs. If you have tried to add some fast-paced cardio and it’s making you unhappy, there are definitely other options. Dance, aerobics or newer types of workout classes such as Pilates, barre or spinning are popping up in studios everywhere. Just like gyms, these studios give a “try before you buy” type of deal and you may end up finding yourself a new hobby.
You may even meet new people. The biggest thing is to not be too hard on yourself. It should be fun, but challenging..
Moving your body has a number of healthy benefits aside from distracting you from drug or alcohol cravings. Remember the three-legged stool discussed earlier? If the physical part of your stool is strong, it can help with the mental side as well.
When you’re working out, your body produces a lot of positive, natural chemicals that change your outlook on life. Endorphins are produced by your central nervous system, they elicit a feeling of euphoria. This type of high is natural, free and actually good for you. Endorphins also inhibit the transmission of physical pain.
Chapter 3: Staying in Touch with Your Spiritual Side
Fast fact: In the 1930s, back when AA was first starting, the first physician to endorse its practice, William D. Silkworth, MD, believed that relapse happens because an individual feels emotionally and physically uncomfortable without the comfort of alcohol or drug of choice. And, he reasoned, the only way to stop the cycle of relapse is to have a psychic change through a spiritual experience.
Even Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, theorized that relapse happens because of a void for God, and that a “vital spiritual experience” is absolutely necessary for a chronic relapser to get, and stay, sober.
So, even if you are a non-believer of religion, God or a higher power, think about how science coincides with spirituality in the above two examples. Jung said that a spiritual experience is a huge emotional displacement and rearrangement of ideas, emotions and attitudes with a new set of conceptions. Basically, to have a spiritual experience means that you have felt something so new and eye-opening that you are somehow changed for the better.
Types of Spiritual Practices
There are as many different types of spiritual practices as there are types of personalities. So, it is true that you too can have a spiritual awakening even if you don’t believe in a god or attend Christ-based 12-step meetings. Here are some types of practices that can get you back in touch with yourself and a higher power of your choosing, which should help you avoid relapse:
- Meditation: Mindfulness mediation helps to focus on the present moment and nothing else. Studies show that those who mediate have lowered blood pressure, can relax in stressful situations quicker and are more focused.
- Gratitude: Acknowledge the good that you have done in your life and be thankful for anyone or anything that has showed you love or respect.
- Prayer: This is one of the most well-known of all spiritual practices- especially for those who have come from Judeo Christian backgrounds. Prayer is a type of communication between the individual and his or her concept of a higher power.
- Creative work: Painting, writing or making music can be considered a spiritual practice and can put the creator is a state of flow, also known as, “being in the zone.” In this mental state, a person is fully immersed in the process of the activity.
- Helping others: This spiritual practice is actually recommended for those in recovery. Studies have shown that those who engage in some type of charitable service are more likely to stay sober.
A great place to start is to practice mindfulness in daily activities. This is simply the idea that whatever you are doing, from making dinner to walking down the street to washing the dishes, is the most important and interesting thing at the moment.
For example, if you are making dinner, what does the food smell like? What is the sound that celery makes when it is being cut? How does the wooden handle of a knife feel in the palm of your hand? Pay attention to all of the details and take pleasure in them.
The beauty of staying mindful is that you aren’t lost in your head. You are immersed in what you are doing at the moment and completely into the process and details that make up your task. If you do this, you will find that you cannot worry about the past or the future. You are in the present- right where you belong.
The Power of Faith
When you connect to a higher power, whether that is God or something else, you place your trust in something bigger, more powerful than yourself. You have come to realize that you are unable to control everything and, what’s more, you don’t have to. What a freeing realization!
This faith will help you realize that you are never alone and always accepted, regardless of what you have said or done. Faith also helps you establish mindfulness by incorporating prayer into your daily life.
When you have faith, you have realized that forgiveness is necessary. You need to forgive yourself for your past and know that your higher power has indeed forgiven you. This gives you the freedom to keep moving forward in your life.
Whichever method you choose for spiritual practice, you’ll find the same concepts: mindfulness, forgiveness and a connection back to your true self. You will also be free from your past and allow yourself to live a sober life, just like you deserve.
Conclusion: Relapse Prevention
If you know yourself, check in with yourself daily on how you are feeling, and practice the three sides (emotional, physical and spiritual) of relapse prevention, living a sober life will become easier.
It’s never easy. Life, in general, is never easy. And no one ever said it was going to be. But, if you focus on yourself, take each day as it comes and practice different techniques that work for you, life can become a beautiful unfolding journey.