Relapse Prevention Plan

Estimated reading time: 33 minute(s)

When overcoming a substance use disorder, recognizing all potential hazards in advance is imperative to protect the new life you have achieved with consistent hard work and motivation. Creating an actionable relapse prevention is the first step of the process that can help you shore up recovery following an inpatient treatment plan. As a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain, addiction recovery must include a concentrated, dedicated effort to prevent any recurrences. This plan must provide a blueprint to help people practicing newly-acquired sobriety stay on track while avoiding being derailed.

A good relapse prevention plan can be anything: a workbook, a document, or even a verbal plan that includes steps to ward off potential cravings and reinforce recovery. It may consist of distractions, such as going for a walk, hitting the gym, or seeking help from a support system. The more a person takes care of how effective their relapse prevention plan is, the more effective the plan can be in helping them ward off cravings and triggers. Remember that the plan must be honest and thorough, with multiple responses an individual can rely on when the need arises.

What is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

A relapse prevention plan is a vital tool that significantly helps people recover from substance use. It allows them to recognize their personal behaviors, which would otherwise lead to a relapse in the future if left unaddressed. The plan also outlines different ways to combat these behaviors and remain on track without any derailing. In most cases, a relapse prevention plan includes a written document an individual creates with their therapist or treatment team. The document includes a proper course of action that the individual can follow to respond to any cravings and triggers.

Before learning more about relapse prevention plans, it is crucial to understand that a relapse does not happen in the spur of the moment. It usually happens as a three-step process which includes the following phases:

Emotional Response

As a part of emotional response, a person may not necessarily be thinking about using drugs or alcohol. Their emotions in the back of their mind are, however, setting them up for a possible relapse in the near future. Following are some signs of an emotional relapse:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Intolerance
  • Defensiveness
  • Isolation
  • Mood swings
  • Not asking for help
  • Poor eating habits
  • Not going to meetings
  • Poor sleep habits

Mental Relapse

A mental relapse includes a constant war going on inside the mind where a part of you wishes to start reusing a substance, whereas the other part does not want to. The early phase may include you idly thinking about restarting substance use, whereas in later stages, this thinking becomes more permanent. Following are some signs indicative of a mental relapse:

  • Thinking about people, places, and things you used a substance with
  • Lying to do drugs or drink
  • Glamorizing your past use
  • Hanging out with old friends who use substances
  • Thinking about relapsing
  • Fantasizing about using
  • Planning your relapse around other people’s schedules

Physical Relapse

Once the psychological and mental relapses slowly start derailing you, it does not take long for you to hit a physical relapse eventually. A physical relapse may be as simple as calling your old dealer to get some drugs or visiting a pub to get drunk again after maintaining sobriety. At this point, the relapse process becomes so strong that it may be impossible to stop. It also marks the importance of having a good relapse prevention plan in place that you can turn to the minute you start noticing the early warning signs.

An Overview of Relapsing to Substance Use: The Cravings Models

As humans, most people believe they are well in control of their lives; however, substance addiction can quickly and easily bring them to their knees. Even if a carefully-planned inpatient program can help them recover, it may be difficult to get hold of this sobriety on a long-term basis unless they have an ironclad relapse prevention plan in hand. This is because any habit that alters brain pathways and chemicals are not possible to break and overcome in a few weeks or months. Establishing newer, healthier habits require time to acquire and practice.

People must also understand that cravings are not always expected, and they may suddenly present themselves, even when they least expect them. Experts have classified these cravings based on the following three models:

  • Reinforcement Model: This model is based on the use of a certain substance to relieve unpleasant feelings, such as anger or stress, or cause mood elevation. This behavioral modification eventually reinforces behavior to produce positive experiences.
  • Social Learning Model: This model views trigger-associated cravings that mainly occur during treatment or after it has ended. It also coins the idea that the strategies for maintaining abstinence and its success depend on a person’s confidence and ability to ward off any urges.
  • Cognitive Processing Model. This model revolves around the belief that substance use can slowly become a habit requiring little attention or effort. Avoiding a relapse, therefore, requires skills to block this automatic behavior.

A high risk of relapse serves as a reminder that the foe you are currently facing is very strong. Hence, before you leave treatment, it is imperative to identify all possible landmines and have a well-crafted relapse prevention scheme under your belt as a defined plan of attack.

Tips to Formulate a Successful Relapse Prevention Plan

Following are some key tips to make a successful relapse recovery plan that increases the risk of recovery:

Set your recovery goals

List all recovery goals that can help you stay determined and focused on a new future. These goals may relate to careers, relationships, making positive amends, experiencing spiritual growth, etc.

Find out the core triggers

An important part of a solid relapse prevention plan begins with the identification of all triggers. So take some time and dig deep to identify these triggers and consider them your enemy.

Consider thinking offensively

As you plot a strategy to prevent relapses in the future, adopt an offensive mindset. Consider restoring good health and wellness through a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and self-accountability measures while continuing outpatient therapy and seeking medication-supported recovery.

Familiarize yourself with the warning signs

Relapse often occurs following multiple warning signs that a person fails to pick up. Familiarize yourself with these red flags that eventually lead to a relapse and catch them in time.

Define your recovery tools

Many rehabs teach patients various recovery tools as an inpatient. Make a list of all these recovery tools and start practicing them as soon as you get out of treatment. Focus on better communication skills, conflict resolution strategies, relaxation techniques, and self-affirming thought patterns to move forward while minimizing the risk of a relapse.

Define all actions to take in case of an emergency

Make a list of all potential actions you can take when you see the warning signs flashing in front of you. These actions may include the following:

  • Calling a member of your support system
  • Scheduling an urgent appointment with a therapist
  • Attending a recovery community meeting
  • Going to the gym or a run or taking a brisk walk to distract yourself
  • Rely on mindfulness techniques while acknowledging the trigger or craving without impulsively acting on it
  • Consider getting a sober companion or joining a sober living house
  • Commit to living a lifestyle highly conducive to recovery

Remember that recovery always exists on a continuum. The road to recovery is never smooth, and most people go through various bumps on the way. However, these bumps are not failures but only obstacles to overcome with determination, courage, and a carefully planned relapse prevention plan.

Relapse Prevention Plan Example: What Does a Template Plan Look Like?

While a relapse prevention plan is unique to every individual, most have specific components that help shape the final program and make it effective. These components are explained below:


Make a list of all places, people, and things with the potential to cause a relapse. Known as relapse triggers, the elements of this list can be anything that may force a person to start drinking or using drugs once again. While listing every potential trigger may be impossible, try your best to include as many as you can remember. Ask yourself the following questions to make the listing process easier:

  • What can I see that will potentially remind me of drug or alcohol use?
  • Are there any places that may trigger addiction once again?
  • What feelings do I have linked to a relapse?
  • What can I do if I cannot avoid something that potentially triggers an addiction?
  • What addictive thoughts can I have that lead to addiction?

Actionable Plans to Manage Cravings

“Cravings” refer to a feeling that may force someone to start using alcohol or drugs again. These cravings can get so intense that they may trigger a relapse. However, people with a solid relapse plan in place know how to confront these feelings and keep a relapse off their radar. To ensure this, make a list of emergency contacts you can get in touch with in case you experience cravings. Make another list of all things you can do to distract your mind from these cravings. Your aim should be to find as many healthy coping skills as possible to replace substance use in the long run.

Preventive Tools

Make a list of all relapse prevention tools that have been extremely beneficial for recovery. Following are some examples of these tools that can help you point back in the right direction:

  • Journaling
  • Attending a support group
  • Making a list of consequences you will face if you relapse
  • Attending support and programs through online services
  • Writing a gratitude list
  • Exercising

Remember that people can also become preventive tools. So if you have supportive people, include them in your preventive tools list to strengthen your relapse plan.

Support Groups and Programs

During a relapse, investing time and energy into support groups is imperative. The 12-step groups, in particular, can help people assess their place and act as a sponsor to which they can turn if they expect to experience a relapse in the future. For people not supportive of a 12-step approach, many non-12-step groups can also help them connect with new people with similar struggles, find support, and strengthen recovery.

Lifestyle Changes

Relapse prevention plans can include different ways to amend the negative effects and damage secondary to addiction. This may cover various areas of life, such as relationships, finances, education, and legal issues, and can help people regain insight into why they decided to get sober. These changes also motivate them to make positive choices in life.

As time passes, experts advise revisiting a relapse prevention plan as the components acknowledged in the older plan can always change and develop. While it is possible to do it on your own, consider talking to a professional for a more tailored approach and optimized recovery.


What are the common components of an aftercare program to fight relapse?

A good relapse prevention plan to fight off an addiction generally includes the following steps:

  • Specific triggers and different ways to manage them
  • Communication ideas for loved ones and family
  • Goals
  • Tools to cope with daily stressors
  •  A maintenance plan to spend day-to-day life
  • Accountability methods
  • Everyday self-improvement ideas and healthy lifestyle strategies

What kind of support systems may a relapse prevention program include?

A relapse recovery plan may encourage patients to rely on various people for support. These may include the following:

  • Sober friends
  • Members of a 12-step group
  • Peer mentors or counselors
  • Medical, mental, or substance abuse treatment providers
  • Family members

What is the difference between relapse and lapse?

A lapse refers to experiencing a brief return to feeling anxious or down, leading to substantial changes in behavior. What you do or feel secondary to a lapse is mostly normal, and most people do not allow it to control their lives and can easily get back on track with a little dedication and motivation. A lapse carries the potential to become a relapse in a person who gives it permission to gain control over their lives due to constant worrying.

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