Relapse Meaning 101 – Signs, Causes & Treatment Options

Relapse Meaning 101 – Signs, Causes & Treatment Options

When a drug or alcohol addiction relapse happens, it can be a scary experience for the person with the addiction and their loved ones. Sometimes, the situation can seem hopeless: who can you turn to when you have a relapse or signs of relapse? Does having a relapse mean that treatment has to start all over again, from square one? These are common thoughts and questions related to addiction and relapse that can cause anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. 

The best thing to do is take a few minutes to focus on your breathing, try to clear your mind, and realize that yes, recovery is still possible, you don’t have to start from scratch, and there are resources and treatment available to help get you back on track.

Starting with education about relapse can be a good way to change your perspective on relapse and help you obtain the best care that will work for you as an individual. This guide is meant to provide that education and help you with a shift in perspective whether you’re someone who is experiencing addiction, or know someone who is. 

With a closer look at the signs of relapse, causes, and treatments, you can be sure that there’s light at the end of the tunnel for you or your loved one’s addiction.

Relapse Meaning 

The word relapse, in an addiction sense, means someone who has an addiction to a substance (such as drugs or alcohol) or behaviour (such as gambling) and after a period of recovery, returns to using that substance or engaging in that behaviour. But the word relapse is broadly used in medical practice and means the recurrence of a medical condition or symptoms. 

At its core, addiction is a medical condition that requires treatment, just like any other illness. As with other illnesses, individuals experiencing addiction can relapse, returning to the substance or activity after a period of not engaging with that substance or activity. Relapse in addiction is a normal part of the addiction recovery process and something that can be overcome with treatment and support.

What is a relapse? 

That act of falling back into patterns of addictive behaviour or substance abuse is called a relapse. We naturally seek out activities that cause our brains to feel pleasure. After years of engaging in a behaviour or using a substance, our brain becomes wired to use a substance or behave in a certain way to get that pleasure response. It’s difficult to rewire our brains to not do the thing that makes us feel good, especially when we’ve been doing it for a long time. Not changing our behaviour on a dime is why it’s common to fall back into addiction. That isn’t a character flaw, rather it’s a natural part of being human. However, recognizing the signs behind relapse can help you identify when it’s happening so you can take action as soon as possible.

Signs of relapse 

signs of relapse

There are mental and physical signs of lapses, and understanding that lapses along with full relapses are not signs of weakness or lack of trying, but learning opportunities. There is a difference between a lapse and a relapse when it comes to addiction, and recognizing the difference can help you better understand the recovery process. 

Understanding a Lapse

A lapse can be understood as a temporary “give-in” to the addiction, where the individual can stop and resume recovery. Nobody is perfect, and the road to recovery might have bumps and stops along the way. The best course of action is to understand why the lapse happened, be honest with yourself, and take the time to be introspective. As a starting point, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why did the lapse happen? 
  • Did a specific event trigger me to use again or engage in the addictive behaviour? 
  • How can the lapse be avoided in the future? 
  • What techniques can I use to prevent myself from using or engaging in the addictive behaviour?


Understanding a Relapse

While a lapse represents a one-off situation, a relapse is where a serious assessment of the situation is needed, typically along with a return to treatment.

For example, one drink for someone who is a recovering alcoholic doesn’t necessarily represent a complete relapse, but if that one drink leads to a return to drinking heavily every day, then intervention is needed. 

It’s important to understand that a relapse doesn’t mean a failed recovery, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Serious lifestyle changes associated with addiction recovery take time, patience, and hard work, and relapses do happen. Taking the time to understand why the relapse happened and what actionable steps can be taken to prevent it from happening in the future is the key to keeping addiction under control.

Causes of Drug or Alcohol Addiction Relapse

The cause of a drug or alcohol addiction relapse can sometimes be attributed to a specific situation or cause, but other times the cause isn’t so clear. Feelings and situations related to the relapse can be complex, and tough to analyze to nail down one reason the relapse occurred. More likely, the relapse happened because of multiple life events or lifestyle factors, and the root cause is more like multiple root causes. 

Some common causes of drug or alcohol addiction relapse to consider are:

  • People and places associated with previous drug or alcohol abuse
  • Stressful life situations, such as problems at work, relationship issues with significant other or with friends and family
  • Emotions and feelings like being bored, angry, lonely
  • The fear of withdrawal, which may cause some people to continue with drug or alcohol use, and additionally if an individual feels the symptoms of withdrawal, that can cause them to go back to using drugs or alcohol to relieve those symptoms 

Drug and Alcohol Use in Canada

alcohol abuse

Drug or alcohol addiction isn’t an uncommon situation for many Canadians. Alcohol is the most common substance that Canadians abuse, with around 18% of individuals with an addiction or experiencing addiction attributing it to alcohol. 

Canada is also in the midst of an opioid epidemic, which means that the number of people using drugs in a geographical area increased exponentially. There’s been a 400% increase in the number of opioid-related deaths in Canada from 1993-2018, and the problem is not going away. Alberta and British Columbia continue to be the provinces that experience the highest number of deaths due to opioid addiction.

These statistics just heighten the need to be vigilant with seeking help with addiction. Finding quality drug addiction help is key to starting on the path of recovery. 

Relapse Prevention Tips 

To prevent a relapse from happening, it’s important, to be honest with yourself about what causes you to engage in your addiction. The personal reasons that you come up with for addictive behaviour will help you recognize the “why” behind your addiction and give you a better foundation for overcoming it

But it’s also important to make things easier for yourself by removing the “triggers” in your life that might make recovery more difficult.

Here are some tips for setting yourself up for relapse prevention: 

  • Clear your home of relevant drugs, drug paraphernalia, and/or alcohol so you don’t have these substances or reminders of your addiction easily available to you.
  • Consider your social circle and if it’s feeding into your addiction. Do the people you hang out with only hang out with you to drink or do drugs? It can be difficult to cut people out of your life or limit your time with them, but it can be a necessary step to addiction recovery.
  • Specific places or activities can trigger a lapse or relapse. Find new places to hang out and take up new hobbies or other activities that are not related to your addiction. Not only will this help you broaden your horizons, but it can be fun to open yourself up to new experiences.

Identifying and dealing with positive and negative emotions and situations

Often, the underlying reason for substance abuse in the first place is difficulty dealing with certain emotions without turning to drugs and alcohol. However, being able to face these emotions head-on and deal with them is essential for recovery.

Avoiding high-risk situations isn’t always possible, so it’s important to have a plan in place for how you will deal with them. What that plan will look like will depend on the situation itself and those who will be around you. That plan might include having distraction techniques ready to go or being aware of exits or safe areas where you can remove yourself from the situation temporarily until you regain control.

Distraction tips

distraction tips

Healthy distractions can be a good way to help you deal with triggering situations and activities, or just deal with cravings in general. Examples of healthy distraction techniques include:

  • Going for a walk
  • Exercise, such as yoga
  • Reading a book
  • Listening to music
  • Doing crafts
  • Doing something you enjoy that isn’t related to the addiction, such as playing video games or watching a movie

Relapse Treatment Options 

There are a variety of relapse treatment options available depending on the person and the severity of the addiction and relapse. Experiences with what works and what doesn’t depend on the person, highlighting the importance of having multiple treatment options available.

Inpatient treatment 

Inpatient treatment occurs at a specialized addictions facility where the patient stays there for 24 hours a day and is offered treatment in the form of individual counselling, group counselling, medication, and case management, and family support. Treatment at an inpatient facility can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Outpatient treatment 

Outpatient treatment options are available in Canada for those who are unable to go to an inpatient treatment centre, whether it’s due to cost or other reasons. Andy Bhatti’s team of drug and alcohol counsellors offers month-to-month treatment options covering a wide range of addictions. Get more information and book your free consultation.

Private counselling

private counselling

Private counselling is usually sought out by the patient and can be covered by health insurance or provided at a cost to the patient. Counselling professionals use different strategies and treatment approaches to help patients through all stages of the recovery process.

Group counselling 

Group counselling can be offered at a treatment facility or through a community program and consists of a group of individuals experiencing the same addiction discussing skills and strategies for managing it. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What causes addiction?

Addiction can be caused by many different factors that change depending on the person. Some research shows genetic factors may play a role in addiction, where some people are simply more susceptible to certain addictions than others. Environmental factors such as unstable housing, abusive relationships, and poverty can contribute to addiction as well. Negative mental health is another large factor that contributes to addiction.

Is addiction a disease?

One of the biggest hurdles that individuals struggling with addiction face are the stigma that addiction is a choice when it is not. The science is clear that addiction is a disease and not a representation of weakness, lack of willpower, or moral failing. With the proper resources and treatment, someone can manage their addiction and lead healthy, productive lives.

How do I know if I have an addiction?

Addiction is a word that is used to describe any sort of behaviour or activity that someone feels the compulsion to continue is out of control. When we’re referring to drug and alcohol addiction, it helps to have a clearer definition so that people can better understand when it’s time to seek help.


The Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH) suggests that addiction is the presence of the 4 C’s:

  1. Craving
  2. Loss of control of amount or frequency of use (e.g. alcohol or drugs)
  3. Compulsion to use
  4. Use despite consequences

How do I know if my substance use is a problem?

According to the CAGE substance abuse screening tool, answering the following questions helps you determine if you have a substance abuse problem (The bolded keyword in each question represents a letter in the CAGE acronym):

  • Have you tried to cut down your drinking or other drug use?
  • Have you felt angry or annoyed at someone else’s comments about your drinking or drug use?
  • Have you felt guilty about your drinking or drug use?
  • Have you used drugs or alcohol as an eye-opener, that is, first thing in the morning?


If you answered yes to at least two of these questions, you may have a substance abuse disorder and require assistance or treatment.

What happens if I relapse? 

If you do relapse, the most important thing is to not lose hope. Addiction treatment is an ongoing process. If you think you’ve relapsed or are in danger of relapsing, contact your counsellor, interventionist, caseworker, or any other professional that is currently helping you with your addiction. If you need help immediately, please contact us at 1-­888-813-6913.

What is a relapse in addiction?

A relapse is when you return to patterns that lead to addictive behaviours or substance abuse after a period of recovery. A relapse doesn’t mean failure or that you have to start treatment again from square one, rather it’s a sign that you need additional help and treatment at this stage in your recovery.

What are common barriers to addiction recovery?

Common barriers to addiction recovery in Canada include long delays for treatment, unstable housing situations, lack of supportive social networks, and cost of recovery services.


relapse meaning

Relapse is a serious, but preventable, occurrence in addiction recovery. Not everyone will experience a relapse, but the possibility is high. It’s important to fully understand why the relapse happened, what can be done to prevent it in the future, and how you can receive treatment to help you get back on track with your recovery.

There are treatment centres and resources available to help you:

  • Andy Bhatti has years of addiction expertise and personal experience backed by education from the Justice Institute of British Columbia with an addiction studies certificate, nonviolent crisis intervention program, as well as other programs in the field of Intervention Skills and Training through Canadian and American studies.
  • Canada Drug Rehab and addiction services directory is a free resource that makes it easy to locate drug rehab and detox programs throughout Canada.
  • Cedars at Cobble Hill is an addiction rehab facility that specializes in providing individualized care and programs for patients experiencing drug and alcohol addiction.
  • Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a private mental health treatment facility that provides 24-hour medical care, including psychiatry, psychology, nutrition and fitness support, specialized bodywork, and other services. The Sunshine Coast Health Centre has a record of providing high-quality care since 1991.
  • Aurora Recovery Centre offers a variety of programs geared towards the treatment and management of addiction. Their philosophy is based on the knowledge that addiction is a treatable illness, and with the right recovery management system and expert care, individuals can recover from it.
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