It can be hard to understand why alcoholics relapse. People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) are more than just “alcoholics.” They are individuals with hopes and dreams. They are people with family and friends who love them and want the best for them.
That is one reason why relapsing is upsetting一not only does the person relapsing suffer, but so do those who care about them. Sadly, according to reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse1, 40% to 60% of those with a substance use disorder will relapse at some point. Relapsing is so common that many people consider it a normal part of the recovery process.
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What Is a Relapse?
There is some confusion about what constitutes a relapse as compared to a “lapse.” This may be due to the perception among many in the recovery community that any “slip up” – even one drink – counts as relapsing. However, American Addiction Centers (AAC)2 defines a relapse as a full-blown return to old patterns of addictive behavior.
According to the AAC’s definition, having one drink or even a weekend of drinking may not be a relapse – as long as the person immediately returns to sober living and engaging with recovery activities, such as attending 12-Step meetings. By comparison, if one drink turns into daily drinking and other destructive behaviors related to AUD, it is considered a relapse.
Health Hazards When Alcoholics Relapse
When alcoholics relapse, the most immediate danger is death. If the relapse of alcohol is heavy and prolonged, that person may be recovering from more than addiction. Their body may also be recovering from liver damage or a disease like cirrhosis. Binging on alcohol could lead to life-threatening organ damage, especially the liver.
Other dangers include:
- Emotional/Mental collapse – loss of hope, inability to regulate moods
- Depression, thoughts of suicide
- Loss of relationships with family and friends
- Job loss, lack of income
- Degeneration of physical health
Alcohol overdose is another concern. All addicts develop a tolerance for the amount of alcohol or drugs they need to attain the desired effects. If a person with AUD previously developed a strong tolerance for drinking and attempted to consume the amounts they used to, it could result in an overdose. Overdosing from alcohol could lead to death or permanent brain damage.
What Makes Alcoholics Relapse?
The brain of someone suffering from alcohol use disorder operates differently than someone without the disease. Each time an alcoholic drinks, their brain adapts to the presence of alcohol. In time, these adaptations cause their brain to crave alcohol even after long periods of sobriety. These cravings make an alcoholic more vulnerable to everyday stress and triggers.
Some of the most common triggers that cause alcoholics to relapse are:
- Seeing or smelling alcohol
- Being in an atmosphere where alcohol is served
- Experiencing loss – job loss, divorce, or the death of a loved one
- Financial problems
- Being with people or in places from their drinking days
- Emotional and physical trauma or pain
Several factors can make the risk of relapse even greater. Some people in recovery put themselves in risky situations because they have become overconfident in staying sober. Not attending recovery meetings or participating in recovery-focused therapies also increase the chances of relapsing.
Ultimately, it is a combination of genetics, personal choices, and an inability to handle the stress that leads people to relapse.
Alcohol Relapse Warning Signs
Relapses typically happen gradually, particularly for people with an established period of sobriety. Warning signs of relapse include:
- Not taking care of themselves – such as a poor diet or hygiene
- Keeping secrets
- Talking about missing alcohol or the “good times” associated with drinking
- Isolating themselves from sober friends and family events
- Showing signs of depression or anxiety
- Missing therapy appointments or recovery meetings
- Rekindling friendships with former drinking friends or making new ones
- Lapses – occasional light drinking
Not all alcoholics relapse. And exhibiting the warning signs doesn’t mean a relapse is inevitable. If someone you know is showing the warning signs of a relapse, encourage them to seek help. Do not enable them. Don’t make excuses or help them avoid consequences related to their behavior.
Find Support at Desert Cove Recovery
If you or someone you love is concerned about relapsing, recommitment to a 12-Step program or attending a rehab program can help – even if they have undergone treatment before.
At Desert Cove Recovery, we understand why alcoholics relapse, how one can avoid a relapse, and which treatments are most effective in recovery. Contact Desert Cove Recovery today for more information.
 Treatment and Recovery | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
 The Truth About Relapse: 5 Misconceptions Explained – Recovery.org