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So you’ve had a slip and now you’re left with 2 basic choices:

  1. Stop drinking or drugging right away, use your slip as a scary learning experience and get even more motivated to work your recovery program (because now you know how much you still need it!)
  1. Declare your recovery efforts wasted, say that treatment didn’t work, keep drinking or drugging and spiral very quickly back to full-blown out of control use.1

Which choice is right for you? If you’re for the former, read on to get the facts on relapse and learn why it’s so important to get back on that recovery horse as quickly as possible.

The Difference between a Slip and a Relapse

Some people say that a slip and a relapse are the same thing, but a lot of people in the addiction treatment field disagree, arguing that time and intentions differentiate the two.

  • If you have a momentary lapse in judgment that leads to a short period of drinking or using (say a day or so) and then, after you realize your mistake, you get right back to working your recovery – you’ve only slipped
  • If, after a momentary lapse in judgment and some drug or alcohol use you abandon your recovery efforts and get back into a period of full-blown use – you’ve had a relapse

But regardless of what you call it, what you need to do after slipping is to stop using or drinking immediately (don’t use a slip as an excuse to keep on going) and retreat deeply into a zone of recovery safety (safe people, safe places, safe activities etc.)

Some Relapse Facts to Think About

  1. Roughly 2 in 3 relapses occur within the first 90 days of abstinence
  2. Some reasons for your increased relapse risk during this initial period include impaired cognitive abilities, like concentration and memory, and poor sober stress-management techniques
  3. Your risk of relapse goes down as your weeks and months of sobriety start to mount up. Your relapse risk decreases because cravings tend to subside in time, your cognitive abilities improve as your brain heals from the damage done by drug or alcohol overuse and you get better and more practiced at handling stressful or difficult situations without resorting to drugs or alcohol.2

Why It’s VERY Important to Stop Quickly

While it can be tempting to use a slip as an excuse to keep drinking or using for a while (“I’ve already blown it…so I might as well have a little fun for a few weeks or so…”) there’s a very good reason to squash this type of thinking.

Giving Your Brain Time to Heal

Your brain will heal, in time, and as it does your memory, concentration, impulse control abilities and general cognitive capacities will all improve immensely.

A single episode of drinking or drug use won’t derail your healing process too substantially, but a week or two or more of heavy use will as good as bring you back to recovery day one – bringing you right back to the highest risk phase for yet another relapse, no matter how many days of successful sobriety you had accrued prior to your setback.

What to Do after a Slip

Firstly…don’t panic. Take a deep breath and consider the following facts.

  1. Slips are pretty common, especially early on. Slips don’t have to grow into relapses and the quicker you get back on the right track, the better.
  2. Having a slip or a relapse doesn’t mean that you’ve failed or that treatment didn’t work. Getting treatment doesn’t give you a magic cure, it just teaches you the skills you need to maximize your chances at maintaining abstinence.  After a slip, the best thing to do is to retreat back to what was working to keep you sober before the lead-up to the relapse.
  3. If you use a slip as a learning experience, it can even strengthen your longer term recovery chances.

After a slip, consider:

  • Getting physically away from a risky environment – away from temptation, away from alcohol or drugs and away from people who provoke cravings
  • Getting in touch with the people who keep you sober right away - call or visit your sponsor, your counselor, a family member or anyone else from your sober support network
  • Talking to your counselor or another mental health professional about whether you should return to a higher intensity level of treatment. Addiction treatment, at its best, changes over time to meet your needs. As you gain stable sober time, you probably need less intensive treatment (occasional continuing care sessions, for example) but after a slip or relapse, you likely need to return to a more intensive stage of treatment (returning to an outpatient program for example, to refocus on the skills you need to maintain abstinence).

After a Slip - Learning From Your Mistakes

So a slip can either weaken or strengthen your recovery process…depending on how you deal with it.

Assuming you’ll choose the latter choice – you need to take your slip as a lesson and strive to learn as much as you can about what caused it, so you won’t have to repeat it.

For example:

  • Were you too tired and stressed out? Maybe you need to recommit to an 11pm bed time, without exceptions.
  • Did too much temptation lead to your slip? Maybe you’ve been overconfident and you need to work harder to avoid the places, people and things that trigger your cravings
  • Did a fight with your spouse cause you to reach for that bottle? Maybe you need to take a good look at your relationship health – would couples counseling help both of you to communicate better to avoid such traumatic fighting?

Staying Prepared to Prevent Slips and Relapses

Things get better in time, as your brain heals and as you develop the skills and confidence you need to succeed without having to resort to drug or alcohol use.

But you’re never totally out of the woods and you’ll always need to stay vigilant and aware of the kinds of situations that increase your odds of slipping and sliding back to an old lifestyle you’d rather not revisit.

Are doing everything you need to be doing to prevent a relapse???

According to the Caron Foundation, to minimize your risk of relapse maintain vigilance over the following 6 situations or emotional states:

  1. Anger and Frustration - Angry people tend to drink more as do people who can’t express anger in a healthy assertive way. You probably can’t eliminate anger and frustration from your life, so to reduce your risk of relapse you may want to learn  anger management and assertive communication skills.
  2. Stress – Excessive stress impairs your ability to think clearly and feel healthy…and it’s also a major relapse trigger. Cut the stress from your lifestyle, and if you can’t get rid of it, learn stress management techniques to at least minimize its destructive – relapse provoking – power over you.
  3. Celebrations – When everyone’s pouring out the champagne and having a blast it can be awfully tough to stay no. Get prepared to deal with the good times while staying sober today, or you’ll be sorry tomorrow.
  4. Symptomatic Mental Illness – Addiction and mental illness get along like two peas in a pod, and when one comes back, the other is likely to follow…so do all you can stay mentally healthy and happy…and clean and sober.
  5. Exposure to Triggers – Frequent exposure to people, places and things that provoke cravings increases your risk of relapse. Minimize your exposure, as much as is possible.
  6. Overconfidence – With a little sober time under your belt it’s easy to grow overconfident and start overestimating your ability to resist temptation. With overconfidence people often stop doing those things that have been working (going to outpatient sessions, participating in a 12 steps group, avoiding people and places they used to use in/with) and they start to put themselves in high risk situations – and unsurprisingly, this often leads to relapse.3


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Page last updated Apr 05, 2016

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