The Warning Signs of Relapse and How to Prevent It

Woman is thinking about relapse

Achieving sobriety after addiction is never easy. This is a goal that takes hard work and grit, as well as applying the lessons learned in a rehabilitation program. Every day on the way to sobriety and then while maintaining sobriety thereafter, the right choices have to be made. Every day, a person has to continue walking the road that leads away from addiction and toward a better life.

If a person relapses, the process starts all over again but at least this time, a person has the benefit of whatever life skills or decision-making skills they gained in their first period of recovery. Many people, after a relapse, report that if they had noticed the warning signs that were right in front of them, they would have realized that they were headed for a relapse.

To help those in sobriety, the following is a list of many of those warning signs. The vitally important point here is, of course, that if you see signs like these showing up, you have to take action. You have to get those feet pointed away from relapse and back toward sobriety.

Isolating yourself:

  • Noticing that you’ve stopped seeing as many people as before
  • Avoiding certain people that you were not avoiding before
  • More conflicts in close personal relationships because you’re not interacting with those people as much now
  • Staying home an increasing amount, even when it is not necessary
  • Canceling social or family engagements more consistently when there really isn’t any reason for it
Upset woman isolating herself

Not taking care of yourself:

  • Mostly eating junk food, snacks or sweets instead of nourishing food
  • No longer participating in activities you used to enjoy
  • Not engaging in actions that simply relax you and make you feel good
  • Not sleeping well
  • An irregular schedule that has you staying up all hours and sleeping during the day for no good reason
  • Not maintaining good personal hygiene or grooming
  • Not keeping your clothes, bedding or home reasonably clean

No longer practicing those actions that helped you get sober such as:

  • Attending supportive meetings you used to enjoy or get benefit from
  • Going out of your way to help others in recovery or poor health
  • Volunteering in your community

Not managing relationships in your personal life or at work:

  • Continuing to associate with toxic people after you have identified their toxicity
  • Feeling oppressed in a relationship or environment and not addressing it
  • Working someplace that feels hostile to you
  • Any contact at all with former drug-using associates, drug dealers or anyone associated with that life

Not identifying warning signs like these as soon as they show up:

  • Having the thought that life, when you were high, was easier or more fun
  • Experiencing cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Noticing that you just had the thought that you can use just a little of your drug of choice and then quit
  • Making a deal with yourself that you will let yourself use as a reward

I’m sure you’ve noticed that some of these signs of relapse are far more critical than others. If you find yourself bargaining with yourself about using, you are pretty far down that road toward relapse. Pouring the coals on the types of activities that keep you enjoying sobriety is vital at this point.

With many of the more minor items on this list, an occasional slip is not going to be a big deal but turning that slip into a bad habit can definitely erode your hold on sobriety. For example, it’s not a big deal to eat some junk food or stay up most of the night watching movies. But it’s a bigger deal to let yourself get run down because of a diet of nothing but junk food. It’s also detrimental to let that irregular schedule become the new normal.

When to HALT

Many rehab programs teach those in recovery this little guide to identifying threats to your sobriety.

  • H: Hungry
  • A: Angry
  • L: Lonely
  • T: Tired

Anyone can remember this acronym and avoid letting themselves get into any of these situations without working to resolve it as quickly as possible. When we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we are more susceptible to our own bad habits. Some people might add “bored” to this list as well.

Being Proactive

What we’ve just looked at involves identifying negative signs so we can keep ourselves on the path to continuing sobriety. The flip side of the coin is proactively preventing relapse by building up the positive influences in our lives. The more we are proactive, the less the snares of negativity will be able to catch us. There’s no 100% guarantee in this game, but every proactive action you take helps you and others enjoy life and your cherished sobriety more.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has described those aspects of a healthy, sober life that support a person as they strive to maintain long-term sobriety. They published these aspects in a booklet titled SAMHSA’s Working Definition of Recovery.

SAMHSA has delineated the following four dimensions that are required to support a person in recovery from addiction or other problems.

Health: Overcoming or managing one’s disease(s) or symptoms—for example, abstaining from use of alcohol, illicit drugs, and non-prescribed medications if one has an addiction problem— and for everyone in recovery, making informed, healthy choices that support physical and emotional wellbeing.

Home: A stable and safe place to live.

Purpose: Meaningful daily activities, such as a job, school, volunteerism, family caretaking, or creative endeavors, and the independence, income and resources to participate in society.

Community: Relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope.

These four dimensions of a healthy, sober life offer extremely simple guidelines for anyone in recovery. Every day, remind yourself of the importance of creating this healthy life. Ensure that your life that day includes health, home, purpose and community. Help other people around you create these dimensions in their lives as well.

When life is challenging, you can even plan a positive day around these four dimensions.

Using the Tools You Learned in Rehab

Sober and confident woman

When a person goes through a well-rounded rehabilitation program, it will teach some system of life or coping skills that help a person achieve sobriety. To maintain sobriety long-term, these same skills must be employed at every opportunity.

The Narconon drug and alcohol rehabilitation program has a Life Skills component. Those in recovery learn how to cope with the ups and downs that occur in life, how to restore and maintain their own integrity and how to improve conditions in any area of life. These are the skills many graduates use to smooth out rough spots in their lives after they graduate from the program and go home. Because every life has rough spots.

Narconon graduates also have access to a Graduate Officer who keeps in touch with those who have returned to their usual lives. Whenever they hit those rough patches or aren’t sure which decision to make to maintain sobriety, this is the person they can call. The Graduate Officer helps them review their Life Skills training if that is needed and gives them an empathetic ear.

The key for a graduate of any rehab program is to identify these important signs of future relapse and take action. You might have other signs that are not mentioned here or that are unique to you. It’s vital to pay attention to them, address the situation they’re associated with and be as proactive as possible in building a positive life for yourself. That’s how you can build a beautiful, sober future for yourself and those you love.


Reviewed by Clair Pinelli; ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.