The Dangers of Withdrawal and Relapse

22 Mar The Dangers of Withdrawal and Relapse

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It might seem counterintuitive, but the weeks and months immediately after you leave a detox and rehabilitation facility or inpatient treatment program can be the most dangerous time during the recovery process. During this time period, you are at a higher risk of relapsing.

After leaving a rehab program, you may still crave the drugs or alcohol that were once such an important part of your life. In fact, it can take up to a year after addiction treatment for your brain to regain normal function in the areas of impulse control, its reward system, and regulation of emotion. For many people in this stage, it can be difficult to go home to their daily lives and reenter an environment that reminds them of their previous alcohol or drug use. Relapse prevention is the biggest area of focus at this point in your journey – and often the hardest.

Individuals who are most at-risk are those who receive only short-term addiction treatment for serious dependencies that cannot be rushed such as opiate addiction. If you undergo treatment for 30 days or less, you have less time to address the underlying causes of your addiction. You also have less experience using the new coping strategies you learned during your treatment. As a result, you are much more likely to fall back into old habits of drug-seeking behavior and use your former and less effective coping skills. Both of these behaviors greatly increase your risk of relapse, regardless of whether you are recovering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

The Health Dangers of Relapse

Addiction is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. Developing a physical dependence to an illicit substance is a disease. Like other diseases, addiction has many features and relapse is one of them. While there is no need to be ashamed if you experience a drug or alcohol relapse, you should be aware of the health dangers.

The biggest health danger of relapse is the risk of an accidental overdose. This risk increases sharply in the weeks and months after leaving a drug or alcohol treatment facility. It might seem strange, but the reason for this increase is simple. It boils down to something called tolerance.

  • When you use drugs regularly or you use alcohol excessively, your body builds up what is known as tolerance. This means that, over time, you require more of that substance to get the same high or same effect.
  • When you detox from drugs or alcohol as part of a recovery program, your tolerance for that substance is lower than when you used it on a regular basis.
  • If you use drugs or alcohol after you leave a detox and rehabilitation program, you will be more affected by a smaller amount of the substance than you were in the past.

When you use alcohol or drugs with a lower tolerance, you are much more likely to overdose. Since you’re no longer familiar with how much of the substance your body can handle, you’re more likely to take too much of it. An alcohol or drug overdose is very serious and it can even lead to death.

The symptoms of an alcohol overdose include:

  • Drowsiness, confusion, or an otherwise altered mental state
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Loss of consciousness

If you experience any of the above symptoms and you do not receive immediate medical help, more serious and life-threatening symptoms can develop. Alcohol relapse is more common than most recovering addicts realize and it is important you are prepared to address these risks head on.

  • Slow or non-existent breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex, which is caused by alcohol’s depressant effect on the nervous system.
  • Cardiac arrest, which is caused by a decrease in body temperature.
  • Seizures, which are caused by low blood sugar levels.

As for the symptoms of a drug overdose, they vary depending on the type and amount of drug used. Most drug overdoses occur when an individual uses multiple substances at the same time. Some of the most commonly mixed substances include alcohol, Valium, Xanax, cocaine, and heroin. Illicit drugs are also responsible for many drug overdoses because they have an unpredictable potency and often go to the brain very quickly.

Although the symptoms can vary, there are many drug overdose symptoms that are universal. In fact, some of them overlap with the symptoms of an alcohol overdose. Things to look for include:

  • Drowsiness, confusion, or an otherwise altered mental state
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Trouble walking
  • Tremors or convulsions
  • Agitation or aggression
  • Hallucinations

As with an alcohol overdose, a drug overdose can result in death if it is not treated immediately and appropriately. If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or another person, please call 9-1-1 as soon as possible. The best way to survive an overdose is prompt medical treatment.

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The Psychological Dangers of Relapse

In addition to the serious effects that an alcohol or drug relapse can have on your physical health, it can also have a negative impact your emotional health.

There can immense shame in a relapse for many individuals. Although the relapse rate of many patients is extremely high, you may feel completely alone and disappointed if you take a drink or use drugs again in a moment of weakness. This profound and deep disappointment can lead to a sense of hopelessness and depression, in more serious cases. For some people, it can even lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.

A relapse can also make you lose faith in the recovery process. You might wonder if the process is worth it – or if recovery is even possible for you. These nagging doubts can be overwhelming, and they can cause some patients to give up on the recovery process entirely. However, the worst thing you can do is give up on recovery after experiencing one or even multiple relapses. You need to keep moving forward for the sake of your body, your mind, and your life as a whole.

A relapse is not the end of the journey, it’s just a single step on the road to recovery. As long as you are alive, there is still hope for living a clean and sober life.

Risk Factors of Relapse from Drugs or Alcohol

Knowledge is one of the best ways to prevent a relapse. There are many risk factors for alcohol or drug relapse, and the best way to avoid them is knowing what they are. Some risk factors are associated with certain situations, while others are tied to emotions or physical sensations.

Here’s a list of some the most of the common risk factors of relapse.

  • Being around drugs or alcohol
  • Spending time with people who use drugs or alcohol
  • Visiting places where other people use drugs or alcohol
  • Using any other type of drug or addictive substance
  • Experiencing the impact of untreated psychological disorders
  • Experiencing negative feelings, including anger, anxiety, boredom, fear, guilt, loneliness, or sadness
  • Experiencing positive feelings that make you want to celebrate with drugs or alcohol can increase your cravings.
  • Experiencing physical pain that you want to dull or eliminate
  • Missing the high of drugs or alcohol
  • Acquiring a lot of cash that will allow you to purchase drugs or alcohol
  • Taking a prescription drug that can get you high even when used properly
  • Becoming overconfident in your recovery and coping skills
  • Avoiding long-term recovery support services like counseling and support groups
  • Thinking you no longer struggle with addiction and convincing yourself that you can use drugs or alcohol occasionally

There is one additional risk factor for relapse that is most common when an individual first starts the recovery process: Returning to drugs or alcohol as a way to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Relapse and withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant or even painful, and they occur when you stop using a substance that your body has become dependent on.

Symptoms of withdrawal are both physical and psychological, and include some of the following:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • NonREM sleep
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Difficult breathing
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

While these symptoms usually don’t last very long, they can still be very uncomfortable. As such, the desire to avoid the short-term discomfort of withdrawal symptoms is sometimes enough to make a patient forego their long-term goal of recovery and return to previous drug-seeking behavior. However, there are things a physician can do to help you get through withdrawal symptoms with as little pain and discomfort as possible.

Ways to Prevent Relapse

In addition to recognizing the risk factors for an alcohol or drug relapse, there are a number of other ways that you can prevent relapse.

Research shows that one of the best ways to prevent a relapse and achieve long-term recovery success is to participate in a treatment program of 90 days or more. The rate of success increases further if the patient is able to gradually transition back into their everyday life. For this reason, receiving high-quality outpatient care is one of the best ways to prevent a relapse.

Outpatient care is designed to prepare you for life outside of a treatment program and to help you continue to use the coping skills you learned while in a treatment program. However, outpatient care alone isn’t enough to help you reach your goals. All of the following actions are recommended to help you as you recover from addiction.

  • Schedule counseling appointments and attend support group meetings. These resources are critical when temptation strikes and they are also great ways to keep temptation at bay, to begin with.
  • Know your risk factors and triggers. Each person has different triggers and some risk factors of relapse will apply more to certain people. Understanding yourself and your weaknesses can help you avoid a relapse.
  • Build strong relationships with loved ones, friends, and individuals in recovery. A strong support network can help you fight cravings and avoid situations that may tempt you to use drugs or alcohol again.
  • Practice mindfulness to understand your emotions. Emotional issues are one of the biggest reasons why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. By understanding your own mind, you can manage your emotions, instead of letting them manage you.

What to Do If You Relapse

The success of your recovery is not judged by whether you experience a relapse. In fact, many individuals who achieve long-term sobriety experience one or two relapses. The difference between patients who move forward after a relapse and those who do not boils down to how they respond.

If you do relapse, don’t be hard on yourself. Look at your relapse as a learning and growth opportunity. Then, move forward with the following steps.

  • Contact your counselor or sobriety partner as soon as possible. They can help you explore what caused your relapse and help you get back on track.
  • Go to a support group meeting as soon as you can. Not only can support groups help you get back on track, they can also provide emotional support and show you that you aren’t the only person who has struggled with a relapse.
  • Start journaling about your thoughts and feelings as well as the situational factors that led to your relapse. This form of self-reflection can help you gain much-needed clarity and insight to help you avoid a relapse in the future.

Relapses are common, but they aren’t inevitable. With the proper education and support in the weeks and months following your stay at a drug and alcohol treatment facility, you can stay sober and avoid a relapse. If you start to experience a relapse, you can reduce its intensity and duration by taking proactive steps as soon as you begin to fall back into old habits.

If you have experienced a relapse, or if you fear that you might in the future, please contact the caring and compassionate staff at Georgia Drug Detox. You can achieve long-term and lasting sobriety even if you experience one or more relapses.

Many people think that rehab is a permanent solution, but it is just the beginning of the process. Recovery is a journey, and Georgia Drug Detox is here to help.


“What Are the Dangers of Withdrawal?”  American Addiction Centers. 13 Mar. 2019.

“Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal.” Addictions and Recovery. 13 Mar. 2019.

“What Happens if I Relapse?” Addiction Center. 13 Mar. 2019.

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