What to Do When a Recovering Alcoholic Relapses

If your loved one is recovering from alcoholism you probably are well aware that recovery is, indeed, a lifelong pursuit. One day at a time, as the slogan goes. Alcoholism is incredibly challenging to overcome, although thousands do manage to slay the monster on a daily basis. But what happens when things go south? Knowing what to do when a recovering alcoholic relapses can be instrumental in helping them get back up.

Alcoholism: A Chronic, Progressive, and Relapsing Disease

Understanding alcoholism as a disease is key to grasping the profound uphill challenge that is involved in the recovery process. While alcoholism may not look like a disease, it most definitely is one. The American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, as well as the American Psychiatric Association all define alcoholism as a chronic disease of the brain, and science has born this out. Continual advancements in brain mapping and neural technologies provide ample evidence that alcoholism is a brain disease.

Just as lifestyle choices and genetics can contribute to diseases such as skin cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, the same could be said about the origins of alcoholism. Interestingly, when someone who makes unwise daily lifestyle decisions, such as regularly consuming an unhealthy high fat diet and getting no exercise, ends up with life-threatening heart disease they are usually met with compassion and concern for their circumstances. Contrast that response to that of someone whose drinking habits resulted in the development of alcoholism. For them there is little compassion or support; an unfortunate cultural truth. But regardless of the social stigma associated with alcoholism, it is indeed a disease—a relapsing disease at that.

Relapse in Recovery

It is often stated that relapse is a normal part of recovery. There is truth in that, as relapse rates for alcoholics in the first year of recovery can be up to 80%. This is due to the way neural pathways in the brain have been remapped as a result of the changes in neurotransmitters over an extended period of excessive alcohol consumption. The brain becomes hardwired to expect the usual inflow of alcohol into the body and it can take years of sobriety for this pattern to be normalized. Between cravings and ingrained addictive behaviors and distorted thought patterns, relapse becomes a common occurrence.

In essence, the alcoholic has become a prisoner of their brain’s reward center, which sends constant signals to the person to return to the bottle, many times leading to a relapse. While very disheartening, relapse can be overcome when the right steps are taken. Understanding these steps and what to do when a recovering alcoholic relapses will prepare both the alcoholic and their family members to respond in a productive manner.

What to Do When a Recovering Alcoholic Relapses

When someone in recovery relapses they will experience deep feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and self-loathing. Do not pile on by making them feel even worse for the slip up. They have to endure the shame of collecting a “newcomer” chip….again. They may have lost a job due to the relapse, or even their spouse. Relapse is a devastating setback and should be handled with compassion. Remind them they are loved and that the family stills supports their recovery efforts. Let them know you still believe in them.

Encourage your loved one to take the steps needed to reinforce sobriety. These steps include returning to outpatient therapy and group therapy. Peer support is especially important after a relapse, so help them recommit to actively participating in a 12-step recovery group, gaining a sponsor if they don’t have one, and making amends. For an added layer of support, suggest they stay in sober living housing for a few months as well, where they can reinforce sobriety before heading back to their home community.

Intensive Outpatient Programming (IOP)

An excellent step to take following a relapse is to revisit the IOP. These outpatient programs offer a weekly schedule of classes and group therapy that will help the individual rebuild their confidence in recovery after a relapse. Therapists can assist the individual in exploring what triggered the relapse and then guide them with methods and recovery tools to help them going forward.

An IOP consists of several treatment elements including:

Psychotherapy. These therapy sessions can be either a one-on-one session with a therapist or a group session with a therapist guiding the discussion. In cognitive behavioral therapy, the client will examine sources of emotional strife or pain that may have initiated the urge to drink, with the therapist helping them to process the pain and find new ways of thinking about the challenges. By reordering the negative thought patterns toward positive messaging, the resulting behavior patterns will also be healthier.

Addiction education. Classes that teach the biophysical and neurological changes that occur in addiction help the individual better understand why they feel so powerless, and help them to have a more positive attitude about what they are dealing with.

Relapse prevention strategies. Following a relapse it is a good idea to revisit triggers and identify new strategies for anticipating an impending relapse allowing one to take offensive steps, and for setting creating a list of proactive measures to take when confronting triggers.

12-step program. Participating in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is usually a component of an IOP. The steps provide a methodical approach to overcoming alcohol addiction, and the recovery meetings are a good source of peer support.

Phoenix Rising Addiction Center Provides Intensive Outpatient Treatment

Phoenix Rising Addiction Center Healthcare is a leading IOP based in Orange County, California. Recovering from alcohol addiction requires a long view perspective. Relapse is, unfortunately, very common for alcoholics in recovery, especially in the first year. Knowing what to do when a recovering alcoholic relapses is critical to overcoming the slip and moving forward. A combination of outpatient therapy, sober living housing, and a recommitment to the 12-step program is an effective solution. Phoenix Rising provides all these resources for the alcoholic in recovery. For more information about our program, please contact Phoenix Rising today at (949) 518-0345.