Keep going: How to move on from relapse

Here are some tips on how to pick yourself up and dust yourself off if you’ve recently experienced a relapse, or feel you are at risk.
man climbing a mountain

When you’re trying to change your drug and/or alcohol use, experiencing relapse can make you feel like you have failed — but that’s not true. What many people may not know is a lapse (a minor return to old patterns) or relapse (a significant return to old patterns) can occur quite often during the recovery process. Usually a relapse occurs when we are triggered by something, those triggers can be external (people, places and situations that lead to urges to use) and they can also be internal (feelings and thoughts that happen before use). Feeling triggered can be stressful and can lead to us falling back into old patterns.

It is useful to recognise situations where the chances of a relapse occurring are increased, usually this means knowing your emotional and social triggers. Triggers are different for everybody, but some common examples include:

  • spending time with a particular social group
  • boredom
  • loneliness
  • relationships
  • reminiscing past events and use
  • unresolved trauma.

Maintaining change can be a difficult stage of the recovery process, it requires a lot of resilience and patience. It takes time to adjust to life without using substances. When we feel triggered by an emotion/event/memory/temptation we can feel the strong urge to revert back to our old ways of coping. It’s important to understand that if you relapse, that does not mean your journey is over.

Here are some tips on how to pick yourself up and dust yourself off if you’ve recently experienced a relapse, or feel you are at risk:


It’s important to allow time to sit in the present moment and really think about the potential consequences, pros and cons of your conflicting choices. You might find the urge eases if you give yourself time to think it through.

Pay attention to your triggers, and remind yourself

You have the power to make a choice on how you respond when they arise.

Practice self-care

That means making an effort to prioritise yourself and the things that you find nourishing and enjoyable, to help you to be present in your present moment.

Some examples of self-care activities include:

  • physical exercise
  • going to the movies
  • catching up with friends
  • journaling or
  • reading.

People who experience a relapse throughout their journey of recovery often feel discouraged to try again or identify themselves as a ‘failure’. Although having a set-back can be disheartening it must also be seen as a chance to learn and grow. Treat your relapse as a learning experience. Identify your triggers. Reflect on what was going on for you at that moment. What was happening for you emotionally and physically in that moment? What were your thoughts and how did they relate to your actions?

Taking the time to understand your triggers and urges will help you maintain change into the future. Remaining patient with yourself and the process is the key.