What’s the Difference Between Relapse and a Slip Up?
For someone recovering from substance abuse or addiction, relapse occurs when the person knowingly seeks out drugs or alcohol. In this case, they have consciously abandoned their recovery plan.
A slip-up, on the other hand, is an isolated incident of consuming drugs or alcohol. This may have happened accidentally, such as mistakenly taking a sip of an alcoholic drink. Triggers can also cause slip-ups, like a stressful week at work or hanging out with an unhealthy friend group.
The key difference lies in what the person in recovery decides to do after that drink or substance use. Someone in relapse continues their use and hides the evidence of it, whereas the person who comes clean to their mentor or sponsor has only had a slip-up.
How to Avoid Situational Relapse Triggers:
Triggers are what can cause cravings that lead a person in recovery to drinking or using drugs and compromising their sobriety. People often think of relapse triggers as situational, such as:
- The smell of a substance
- Seeing the substance
- Being in the same room where other people are using
- Talking about it in a glamorized way
- Reminiscing about when you’ve used the substance
- Being in a place where you used the substance last
For those who have just gone through addiction recovery, they may convince themselves that they can handle one drink. Worse, someone else during the holidays may convince them. The problem with a “one-time-use” is that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol can’t self-regulate and only have one drink or one night with drugs, even after rehab.
How to Avoid Psychological Relapse Triggers:
The process of recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is challenging. For most people, it is a life-long journey. Learning how to navigate and manage potential relapse triggers is one of the most important parts of recovery. And this goes beyond just “being in a bad situation.”
According to the Journal of Family Psychotherapy, an instance of “psychological, emotional, and physical pain…frequently precipitates relapse.” Examples of these types of triggers may include:
- Financial stress
- Pressures of work
- Family troubles
- Co-occurring disorders (such as depression or anxiety)
- Physical injury that results in exposure to an addictive substance
- Chronic or acute physical pain
- Loss of a loved one
The authors in the article above suggest that a model of “resilience” in the context of recovery is what makes the differences for sustained-sobriety.
5 Tips to Build Resiliency:
- Don’t Give Up
While a primary goal for anyone in recovery is to avoid relapse, this should not consume your day to day life. Your main goal should be framed as “recovery and healing,” not simply trying to “avoid relapse.” This helps a person make positive affirmations like, “I will do” such and such. Affirming, positive statements are much easier to maintain than “don’t do” such and such. A key part of recovery is focusing on what can be done to improve the situation now. Acknowledging your own power and agency helps give you confidence and courage to keep going when it’s tough.
- Spotting a Slip vs. Relapse
Admitting when a slip-up happens is half of the battle. Sometimes someone who is in recovery will use once or have a drink, and then instantly regret doing so. If this happens, reach out to your mentor or sponsor immediately. If handled correctly, a slip can strengthen someone’s path to recovery if they are willing to recognize that it was a mistake. Learning to build trust with yourself and with those in your support group is central to sustainable recovery. Honesty, open communication, and self-acceptance are all ways to build resiliency—both for the individual and the community.
- Keep Your Support Network Close
The thing about slipping is that sometimes we can get right back up again, but other times we end up sliding much further back. The origin of the word “relapse” comes from Latin, and literally means “a sliding back.” But having your support network on the sidelines makes relapse harder to “slip” into. Staying emotionally and psychologically present and aware will help you stay in touch with what’s going on. This way, things are less likely to come out of nowhere and blindside you.
- Resist Shame and Self-Hate Patterns
If you view a slip-up as a mistake and a result of external triggers rather than as a personal failure, you will have a much higher chance of returning to abstinence quickly. Self-hate and the lasting effects of shame are what isolate a person, and keep them away from the help they need. If you view it as a mistake, the brief “lapse” can be a tool to move forward and to strengthen your motivation to change. It can help you identify triggers more quickly and practice urge-controlling techniques. By practicing your rational coping skills, you can make the lifestyle changes needed to lead a more balanced life.
- See a Slip-Up as an Opportunity to Grow
In conclusion, does this mean that a brief slip-up must lead to a full-blown relapse? Does it mean a person must continue to drink or drug until the use returns to the initial level? Is spiraling out of control inevitable? Simply put, absolutely not. A lapse need not become a relapse. After a slip, you have not unlearned all that you have learned. You have not unchanged all that you have changed in your life to support your recovery.
Does this mean that a person should view slip-ups as a good thing? Of course not! Clearly, if one wants to abstain, lapses are not preferred. But by recognizing that mistakes can happen and reaching out for support from sponsors and mentors, long-term abstinence can be achieved. Slip-ups may occur, but relapse is certainly not inevitable.