Addiction Recovery: How to Avoid Relapse - & Salvage When It Occurs (3/3)

The path to recovery from addiction is rarely straightforward. Yet, you can do it. Through the lens of one young man’s recovery from porn addiction, this third, final instalment addresses the crucial topics of relapse prevention and recovery strategies.

Addiction Recovery: How to Avoid Relapse - & Salvage When It Occurs (3/3)
Addiction Recovery and Relapse Prevention

The path to recovery from addiction is rarely straightforward. Yet, you can do it.

Through the lens of one young man’s recovery from porn addiction, this third, final instalment addresses the crucial topics of relapse prevention and recovery strategies.

With practical and compassionate guidance, this article will help you to maintain progress and continue moving forward.

Read Part 1 HERE.

Read Part 2 HERE.

Part 3 Audio Here:

The First Steps Away from Addiction

Along the path to crushing addiction — whatever your habit — setbacks are expected because life tends to test your resolve, especially when you commit to improving.

Life’s inevitable instances of grief, shock and pain can knock us for six and send us searching for a quick way to remove or deaden the suffering and discomfort.

Perhaps you receive a hefty tax bill, or an anticipated promotion doesn’t materialise. Worse, a relationship may end, or you experience the death of a loved one.

Such vulnerable moments demand your clear-eyed appraisal because responding to upheaval with a return to destructive habits will only set you back further.

When life sets a steep test, addiction’s physical and emotional weight is the last thing you want to carry.

So you must ask yourself, with sincerity and clarity:

How can a return to old ways possibly help me or those I love in these difficult circumstances?

If you muster your strength and respond honestly, you know it won’t help at all, so it’s essential to remain resolute and determined to stay strong.

‘The greatest wealth is a poverty of desires.’ — Seneca

More often than not, a relapse into compulsive habits results from life’s relatively less stark and often more mundane events.

For instance, a moment of celebration or relief calls for icing with a sneaky little ritual.

Or your desire hides in plain sight — perhaps at the bar when everyone else is drinking, too, so it must be okay. Then, one thing leads to another.

The beer needs a line, and the line leads to nicotine and — before you know it — you’ve launched down a slippery one-way slide to a lost weekend and a whole month’s worth of remorse.

Such instances are to be expected.

Various circumstances can pave the way to relapse, so it pays to recognise how and when you might be exposed to these vulnerable moments on your journey to recovery.

Behaviour Relapse

During this stage, you’re not actively thinking about using your habit of choice.

You recall the last time you used (or relapsed) and don’t want to repeat it. But your behaviours may be setting you up for a relapse down the road.

Some warning signs of behaviour relapse include:

· Bottling up emotions — not expressing how you feel.

· Isolating yourself from others.

· Being pulled into others’ problems.

· Poor eating and sleeping habits.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is a natural consequence of poor self-care for long periods. You might start to feel restless, irritable and discontent.

And the longer this remains unaddressed, the more you contemplate returning to your habit of choice.

During this stage, the mind goes back and forth between using and not using. Part of you wants to use it, while the other wants to remain clean.

Some symptoms of the needle moving in the direction of relapse include:

· A craving for the desired substance or activity.

· Thinking about people, places and things associated with prior use.

· Minimising the consequences and allowing a glamourised recollection of past use.

· Bargaining with yourself? — ‘Just this once.

· Lying — ‘It’s not really a problem’.

· Thinking of ways to control use — ‘I’ll stop after an hour.’

· Looking for relapse opportunities, e.g. inventing excuses to ensure you can be alone.

· Planning a relapse, e.g. Going to the pub and knowing someone will be there with your treat.

This is the devious side of addiction — it is constantly searching for any way to grab your emotional steering wheel and buckle your logical brain to the passenger seat.

With addiction dictating the direction of travel, it’s an arduous -and seemingly impossible — climb back to a state of rational control.

Physical causes of relapse

Physical experiences resulting from a lack of self-care can often exacerbate stress and make your habit seem ideal as an immediate distraction and a legitimate solution.

Uncomfortable physical sensations can feel disconcerting. As a result, negative habits offer the appeal to draw your attention away from physical stress.

Yet resorting to a destructive pattern will only make things worse. Instead, reflect with some simple questions about your physical experience.

Here are some useful self-assessment questions borrowed from (author) The Anatomy of Anxiety to aid reflection. Your responses can identify some low-hanging antidotes that provide alternative, constructive remedies to physical causes of stress leading to relapse:

Am I hungry? (I need to eat something)

Sugar crashing or having a chemical come-down? Have I eaten something sweet, processed, or laden with food colouring or preservatives? (If yes, I should have a healthier snack and focus on making different choices next time.)

Over-caffeinated? (Perhaps the jittery anxiety is caffeine sensitivity. I’ll drink less caffeine tomorrow.)

Under-caffeinated? (I drank less caffeine today than usual; I’ll dose up and aim for consistent daily caffeine consumption from now on.)

Am I tired? (I’ll take a nap and prioritise an earlier bedtime tonight.)

Am I dehydrated? (I’ll Drink some water.)

Do I feel sluggish? (I’ll take a quick walk outside, listen to music, or dance.)

Am I feeling unbalanced? (Did I descend down an internet rabbit hole or social media binge? I’ll take some exercise or go outside with fresh air, sunshine, cold weather, a walk in the rain to reset the nervous system.)

Am I still drunk or hungover? (I’ll file this feeling and let it help to inform my future choices around alcohol.)

This brief appraisal of your bodily sensations invites you to step aside and critically reflect on your physical condition. Addressing physical stressors with practical questions helps to direct your attention away from destructive responses and towards pursuing constructive solutions.

Managing relapse

Following the earlier articles, you’ll have read about Jay and his addiction to online porn.

Such was the extent of his longstanding habit that he relapsed several times during his recovery. I reassured him this might be expected, and — in fact — these experiences would enable us to formulate a robust and effective relapse plan on his behalf.

Here, it would help to isolate Jay’s instances of release to help him put interventions in place.

There were three triggers for Jay’s relapse:

Tiredness: When low on energy, he would feel quickly overwhelmed. From here, he was prone to descending a dark and negative spiral in which ‘nothing really mattered.’ Consequently, he would resort to porn for comfort and distraction.

Conflict: Jay struggled to express himself at work by his own account. He had yet to effectively develop the skills to assert his needs and opinions.

As a result, he was shy of any situation resembling conflict, which may lead to strife or personal differences.

The upshot was he often felt frustrated and angry with his cooperative behaviour. Thus, he would swallow his feelings of timidity with online porn.

Celebration: Moments of success are one of the sneakiest (and most confusing) tangents to relapse.

For Jay, a positive development, e.g., a favourable review at work, could encourage him to top off the feel-good feeling with something extra.

In this sense, his successes could instigate behaviour that brought about emotional defeat.

Jay said, ‘I don’t know why I did it. What’s wrong with me?

The reason is straightforward: emotion precedes thinking, so any form of emotional arousal — good or bad — can bypass rational analysis and lead to detrimental behaviour.

It was critical for Jay and I to firmly address these relapse triggers one by one.

We focussed on Jay learning to regulate and manage his energy levels (tiredness trigger), develop some assertiveness skills to communicate better (conflict trigger), and raise his general aspirations so positive experiences wouldn’t knock him off balance, i.e. his poor self-esteem had been leading to emotional and — ultimately — self-sabotaging responses to positive events.

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

By now, Jay’s situation had markedly improved. His reliance on internet porn had stopped, and — for the first time in adulthood — he was getting his life in reassuring order.

Critically, he had taken mindful, practical steps to position himself responsible for his behaviour.

As a result, his physical and emotional capacity to adjust to setbacks and develop the life he wanted began to expand.

With events now promising an improved future, Jay and I set about protecting his progress with a plan to manage relapse should it ever occur.

This is a critical step because, upon relapse, a person will often feel they’ve ‘broken the seal’ and are back to square one. The ensuing disappointment can pave the way back to old habits. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

What follows is a broad outline of the steps Jay and I agreed upon in case of relapse. These steps are transferable and can help others too.

If relapse threatens…

Think About What Would Happen

You know better than anyone that returning to your habit means hitting rock bottom again.

So bring vivid negative consequences of your actions into the here and now and use your experience to imagine how you’ll feel if you let yourself give in.

The shame, disappointment and turbulence of a habit holding your well-being to ransom — is this what you want?

Visualisation and hypnosis techniques can be beneficial to slam home the negatives of addiction and amplify the positives of being finally free (link at the end).

When relapse occurs …

Beat Addiction Relapse - Your Plan

Research on smokers, alcoholics and harder drug users highlights that about two-thirds of people relapse within three months. And most of these relapses occur within the first month. Many people trying to give up an activity fail on the first attempt. Yet many still go on to achieve lasting success.

Don’t brand yourself a failure if you have a slip. Instead, you must mentally frame the relapse as a minor setback and redouble your efforts to succeed. Here’s how:

Change the environment

If you have time, remove yourself physically from the situation and take an objective moment to review and reflect upon what happened.

Remain calm

While you might be shocked or upset, mainly if your relapse appears to come out of nowhere, blame and guilt are destructive responses. Instead, keep a calm head and decide what needs to happen next for you to re-establish your progress.

Review the ‘why?’

Isolating your relapse circumstances will provide critical information for increasing your vigilance against future urges in similar situations.

Did you visit a specific place or meet a particular group of people? Were you feeling stressed, tired, or out of control in the period before relapse?

Did something happen that you associate with your activity, and before you knew it, the urge had taken over?

Did you experience a strong emotional response — positive or negative — to something? As a result, did the desire kick in, and were you carried away?

Did addiction play a sleight-of-hand trick and suggest you could have a no-consequence interaction with your habit, but then it took over?

Your honest appraisal of the steps leading up to relapse will help you define what needs to be different next time.

Reaffirm your commitment

Take your relapse as a warning that the positive expectations you associate with your habit are still lurking. With your emotional brain at the fore, it would be easy to surrender and think, I’ve ruined it. I might as well go the whole hog! But don’t let this happen.

While addiction is a powerful opponent when you take your eye off the ball, your progress until now shows you have what it takes to be even stronger. Be clear with yourself and review your determination. Pick up your resolve and go again.

Talk to someone

One of addiction’s heaviest penalties is when people feel compelled to keep their habits secret.

Feelings of guilt, shame and upset go hand in hand with the drivers of addiction, so difficulty talking about it is understandable.

Yet whether you speak to a friend, relative or objective professional, sharing your experience can help distribute its emotional burden.

Moreover, your honesty can reassure those invested in you that you’re committed to a path of recovery they can invest in as they continue to support you.

People led astray by addiction have taken the wrong road in search of a solution, distraction or removal to their troubles. Recovery can seem out of reach when you’re stuck in the addiction cycle.

But no matter how powerless you feel, change is possible with the proper treatment, coping strategies, and support. Don’t give up, even if you’ve tried and failed before.

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