What is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

In its simplest form, a relapse prevention plan is a strategy to help a newly recovered person remain free of drugs and alcohol. Relapse prevention plans are typically designed by therapists or case managers and delivered when a patient completes drug and alcohol treatment. The primary goal of drug and alcohol rehab is to get a patient safe and stable, help them better understand themselves, the nature of addiction, and to introduce them to living recovery. Recovery is best thought of as a process or lifestyle, rather than a goal. Relapse is, of course, what we are trying to avoid. Relapse is, unfortunately, part of many recovery journeys, but there are proven methods for avoiding it. Relapse prevention plans give the patient some protection in early recovery. The best way to avoid relapse is by understanding how relapse occurs and practicing behaviors to discourage those conditions.

How Relapse Happens

An old recovery adage says, “relapse begins before you pick up the first drug or drink”. This is oft-repeated because there is a lot of truth to it. Relapse generally does not happen spontaneously even though it sometimes may seem that way. Most often there are underlying causes to relapse. These may include:

  • Stress
  • Poor self-care
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Isolation/loneliness
  • Overconfidence/recklessness
  • Undiagnosed, untreated psychiatric problems

Healthy recovery makes us more resistant to stressors such as these, but no recovering person can afford to take sobriety for granted. No one is totally immune to relapse. Often relapse happens when a person begins to neglect their recovery practices, unknowingly making themselves more vulnerable. They may feel safe for a time. As long as their comfort and confidence aren’t challenged, it seems to work. The problem occurs when that negative variable enters their life. They get a call from an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend or someone else they used with. They have a sudden financial crisis or a death in the family. Any number of life stressors can trigger a relapse, even sight or a smell or finding oneself in a neighborhood where they used to get drugs.

Making The Plan Work

Life happens. Stressors such as these are going to cross everyone’s path whether we like it or not. The secret to an effective relapse prevention plan is not avoiding every possible source of stress. It is investing in the strength of individual recovery. Every piece we put in place to make recovery stronger and more resilient provides more protection from a relapse event. A solid relapse prevention plan will usually include many or most of these elements:

A list of potential triggers

  • Meetings/fellowship attendance
  • Sober supports and/or a sponsor
  • Medication management
  • Continued outpatient therapy
  • Accountability and follow-up

Each person’s relapse prevention program may look a little different. While people in recovery share similar struggles, each person’s precise set of challenges is unique to them. A good relapse prevention plan will reflect this reality. The plan may need to evolve over time as well to meet new challenges or shore up weaknesses. The most important thing is to be invested in recovery. Understand that your recovery is not about pleasing anyone else. It is about empowering you to become the best version of yourself you can be. A relapse prevention plan is one small part of the structure that is your recovery, but it is a very important part. You can think of the plan as training wheels of a sort for early recovery. You may eventually outgrow the plan, but we never outgrow the insights the plan provides. As mentioned earlier, recovery is best thought of as a process without a finish line. This is the beauty of recovery, however. It means there are no limits to your personal growth.