Finding Your Way Through a Relapse

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Finding Your Way Through a Relapse


When you are trying to make a behavioral change, whether it be reducing/quitting any type of drug use or changing your relationship with food, a return to old behavior (e.g., a relapse or a slip) can be a frustrating event. Not just for you, but for the people around you who care about you and in some cases may be desperate for you to change (and I know you can feel their desperation!). Often it feels like you’re (finally!) on the path you want to be on, and then, out of the blue, you fall off of that path and are now back to what may feel like the beginning.

While in many ways it feels like relapse happens without much warning, it’s best to think of it as a process that happens over time. And even more important, it’s crucial that you, and everyone who cares about you consider the role of learning in the process of behavior change. It takes time and practice to make a behavior change of any kind. And setbacks happen all the time.

Hindsight is 20/20

If you have found that you have slipped (or fully returned) back to an old behavior pattern you were hoping to change, take some time to pause and reflect on the following questions and suggestions. Doing so may help you reorient yourself and start back up the change process with a better sense of what you have learned in your experiences so far and what you need to practice moving forward.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • What were the internal (e.g., thoughts and feelings) triggers that contributed to a return to old behaviors. For example, were you feeling lonely as you avoided friends who were continuing to use? Were you struggling with critical thoughts about your ability to make a change at all?
  • What were the external triggers (e.g., stress at work, fighting with a friend, financial worries) that contributed to a return to old behavior patterns.
  • Once you have identified the triggers, try to identify ones that could be changed or avoided.
  • Think about the plan for change you had before the relapse, was it specific enough? And if you had a plan, did you carry it out or just think about it.
  • Was there something unexpectedly hard? Something you did not see coming or anticipate as a problem.
  • While you were trying to make changes, what was the biggest problems you faced?

If part of you is still motivated to make a change, try to slow down and really think things through. Many people find they get caught up in feeling upset with themselves for failing and can use more as a result. Additionally, the people in your life may also be upset and you may have the understandable impulse to want to tune everything out and just stay with the old behavior because it’s familiar!

Take Some Time

Here are some strategies you can use as you re-evaluate whether or not you want to keep trying to make a change. You have lots of choices to make. And keep in mind the idea that you have to learn the new behavior you are hoping to put in place (e.g., moderating alcohol, quitting alcohol all together, eating healthy). And learning requires practice and a tolerance for failure and insecurity as you learn a new thing.

  • Find a quiet place and think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. What are your personal values that are behind your decision to change. What do you care about?
  • Assess your goals and renew your commitment.
  • Practice self-compassion. Try not to beat yourself up, it does not pay to feel extraordinarily guilty for setbacks in behavioral change and it can often derail your efforts.
  • Make a plan that includes specific details about how you will try to handle triggers in the future. Try to use the understanding you have of your last return to old behaviors and make appropriate changes…what went wrong. What did you not see coming?
  • Ask for help. We get teachers in school, coaches for sports, trainers for new skills. It’s only reasonable that you get some help in making significant behavior changes. It can be very helpful to find someone who can teach you skills you may not have in your repertoire yet.

One of the bottom lines of behavior change is that it requires practice! The more comfort we get with practice, the bigger the door that opens to change. Practice without embarrassment and without fear of failure, because it is the only way you can learn and get comfortable with skills that are new.

About the Author:

Carrie Wilkens, PhD

Carrie Wilkens, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires. She co-authored an award-winning book, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change with Drs. Foote and Kosanke. Together they also contributed to a user-friendly workbook for parents: The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use. In collaboration with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Dr. Wilkens and the CMC team is developing a national parent training program (the Parent Support Network) to provide parent coaches to families in need of support through a free hotline. Prior to these ventures, Dr. Wilkens was the Project Director on a large federally-funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant examining the effectiveness of motivational interventions in addressing the problems associated with binge drinking among college students. She is regularly sought out by the media to discuss issues related to substance use disorders and has been on the CBS Morning Show, Katie Couric Show, and Fox News as well as a variety of radio shows including frequent NPR segments such as the People’s Pharmacy and The Diane Rehm Show.