While it is of course an oversimplification, one can think of the repetitive use of drugs and alcohol as a bad habit – one that is sometimes exceedingly hard to break. Occasional misuse can quickly develop into a full-blown substance use disorder.
There are other bad habits that contribute to the habit of substance misuse. These habits can include the following:
- Choosing to stay in an environment where others misuse substances or in a toxic environment in which emotional stress contributes to substance misuse
- Spending time with people who drink and use drugs
- Going to places where the primary activity is substance misuse, such as bars, clubs, certain concerts, and parties
- Using substances to manage uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness, or boredom
Often, one of the most effective ways to maintain your recovery without relapse is to stop the associated bad habits that are fueling ongoing use, and pick up a few good habits to replace them. This may require guidance from an addiction treatment professional.
How Common Is Relapse?
Relapse rates fall between 40 percent and 60 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It’s important to note that though these rates seem high, they are actually similar to rates of relapse among other chronic illnesses, including hypertension and asthma. In fact, rates of relapse among those living with a substance use disorder are actually lower than they are for some other chronic disorders.
Relapse doesn’t signify failure. It is considered to be a normal part of the recovery journey. While the goal is to avoid it, it doesn’t mean that recovery is over.
The goal of recovery is to avoid relapse, but if it happens, it does not have to herald the end of recovery. It does indicate a need to revisit the current treatment plan, address the issues that may have started since that treatment plan was put in place as well as things that are not working, and make changes accordingly.
How & Why Do Relapses Occur?
Relapses can occur for a number of different reasons, but in most cases, it means that the person reverts back to the old habit of substance misuse instead of using healthier new coping mechanisms when faced with a challenging event or emotion.
A relapse is defined as a return to use after a period of abstinence. 
Some of the common scenarios that precede or trigger a relapse in recovery include the following:
- An emotional or upsetting event, such as a death, job loss, breakup, or argument
- A building boredom with the simplicity of life in recovery
- Being in a place where others are drinking and using drugs
However, bear in mind that strong physical urges and cravings alone can be enough to trigger a relapse. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be a “reason” for the relapse.
How Do Bad Habits Impact Relapse Rates?
Unhealthy bad habits can make it harder to stay connected to recovery. Here are some bad habits that can increase your likelihood of relapse:
Spending Time With Friends Who Use Substances
If you are spending time with the same people you hung out with while you were actively using drugs or alcohol, it is going to be difficult to refrain from using substances when around those people. Just being around them can trigger old feelings, and if they chronically misuse substances, they will either be under the influence visibly when they are around you or leave to go use substances.
Spending Time With People Who Are Toxic
Being around people who make you unhappy is a surefire way to risk relapse. This can include a boss, coworker, friend, partner, child or other family member. Spending time with people who make you unhappy with yourself or in general can be a trigger for relapse.
Engaging in Stressful Activities
Stress for any reason can make the natural pressure of building an entirely new life for yourself in recovery feel overwhelming. It is a good idea to pull back from activities that cause you undue stress. This might mean making some big life changes – for example leaving job if the work environment is toxic, or discontinuing a friendship if that friendship is causing chronic stress or anxiety. Sometimes this can be very difficult for any of reasons, but might be worth it if it means being able to sustain recovery.
Treatment for Co-Occurring Mental Health Issues
If you are living with mental health issues and not getting the treatment you need to manage symptoms or skipping your medication, you are at higher risk of relapse.
An estimated 7.7 million people in the U.S. over the age of 18 are living with both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder. In some cases, the mental health disorder precedes the SUD but is worsened by substance misuse. In other cases, the SUD comes first and triggers the mental health disorder that may or may not continue to be an issue for a lifetime.
No matter how or when or why it begins, if mental health symptoms are an issue at all during recovery, treatment is recommended for both SUD as well as mental health disorder simultaneously.
Allowing Boredom to Set In
Having too much downtime in recovery is never a good thing. Cravings are a very real part of life in the first year or more after cessation of substance misuse. Without something positive to do with your time, it won’t take long before it feels like the only thing there is to do is use drugs or alcohol. Keeping yourself busy and not allowing boredom to be a trigger is essential.
How to Recognize When a Relapse Is Beginning
The longer you work on your recovery, the better you will know yourself and your personal triggers. However, if you are new at this, here are some of the warning signs of relapse for people in general:
- If you find yourself telling yourself that a single drink or one time using won’t hurt anything
- Difficulty finding motivation to change
- Difficulty responding healthily to challenging situation
- A lack of positive family or friend support in recovery
- Cravings for drugs or alcohol
- Depression or anxiety that feels overwhelming and uncontrollable without substance use
- Spending an abundance of time alone
- Avoiding 12-step meetings, doctors’ appointments, therapist appointments, and other things designed to support ongoing recovery
Ways to Prevent a Relapse
Relapse is preventable. Some of the best ways to prevent relapse include removing the negative habits and patterns in your life and replacing them with healthy or good habits, such as:
- Remove old habit: Create boundaries and space between you and past relationships with people who were driving your substance use
Create new habit: Build new friendships and connections within the recovery community and beyond, including people who may not be in recovery but are not active substance users.
- Remove old habits: Change sleeping habits. Don’t stay up all night and sleep all day.
Create new habit: Get used to a new, healthier sleep schedule that includes going to bed no later than 10 pm and getting up no later than 8 am every day.
- Remove old habits: Let go of mindless eating habits and eating lots of processed or junk food.
Create a new habit: Begin to eat intentionally with a focus on nutrient-rich, whole foods.
- Remove old habits: Stop ignoring signs of depression, anxiety, and restlessness that intrude on your ability to maintain a healthy schedule.
Create new habit: Work with mental health professionals to address any emotional or mental health issues that may be disrupting your ability to stay focused on building a new, healthier life.
- Remove old habits: Stop avoiding activities, chores and other tasks – remembering that too much free time and boredom can put you at risk for substance use.
Create new habits: Choose active activities and engagements to help you keep busy, feel productive, and avoid too much free time to return to use.
Move Away From Relapse Intentionally Today
Early recovery is a vulnerable time. You need support to get through it and avoid relapse.
As you build a support system in treatment, continue to access those resources during ongoing recovery. When you feel tempted to relapse, turn to those sources of support.
Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH
Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where ... Read More
- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery. July 2022. Accessed December 2022.
- Relapse. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/relapse. Accessed December 2022.
- Comorbidity: Substance Use and Other Mental Disorders. National Institute on Drug abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/comorbidity-substance-use-other-mental-disorders. August 2018. Accessed December 2022.
- Whole Health Library: Reducing Relapse Risk. US Department of Veterans Affairs. https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/tools/reducing-relapse-risk.asp. March 2022. Accessed December 2022.