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Alcohol Relapse: Why Does It Happen and What Are the Signs?

10 minute read

Relapse is an unfortunate reality of recovery for many recovering alcoholics. It’s possible even after getting help from a professional addiction treatment program. Relapse doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s a common part of the recovery process. Alcohol is one substance that can be very difficult to recover from, and alcohol relapse is common.

Alcohol is a substance that’s used by countless people every day across the country. Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that 84% of adults in the United States have at least tried alcohol before. Alcohol carries a potential for physical dependence and can establish a vicious cycle of drinking if you don’t get proper help.

What Is Alcohol Relapse?

Alcohol relapse is when someone starts drinking again after a period of sobriety. It’s common because feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression can trigger a return to the dangerous habit. Data shows that between 40% and 60% of people relapse from substance abuse disorders.

Anyone is at risk for relapse, but there are some risk factors that can increase the likelihood of relapsing. Those risk factors include:

  • How severe your addiction problem is
  • Any co-occurring mental health disorders you have
  • Your unique ability to cope with triggers
  • Not having a support system in place for help

Why Does Alcohol Relapse Happen?

Even after you have undergone professional treatment, there’s still a risk of returning to old drinking patterns. Some factors that can cause an alcohol relapse include:

Biological Factors

Addiction is a chronic disease. Just like other chronic diseases, there is always a risk for relapse. Repeated alcohol abuse rewires the brain. The reward center tells your brain and body that you need alcohol to survive. Under these conditions, it is extremely hard to resist urges and cravings to drink.


Certain people, places, emotions, or situations that were associated with drinking in the past can trigger cravings and urges to use alcohol again.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

While physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms usually go away within days or weeks, psychological symptoms can linger for several months. This is known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms, or PAWS, and it includes uncomfortable symptoms like:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Memory problems

These may tempt you to cope with alcohol.

Lack of Support

A network of peers in recovery, loved ones, and behavioral health professionals are critical to long-term sobriety. If you’re isolated and don’t believe you have people invested in you and your recovery, you’re more vulnerable to relapse. Components of support for long-term recovery include:

  • Supportive relationships with loved ones
  • Recovery groups like SMART Recovery or 12-step-based Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Continued care like individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and psychiatry appointments for medication management
  • Involvement in alumni programs from the alcohol rehab you attended

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

People with co-occurring mental health disorders are at higher risk for alcohol relapse. Untreated or undertreated mental illness symptoms are one of the underlying issues that can lead to substance abuse in the first place. Common co-occurring disorders with drug and alcohol abuse are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders

If symptoms from these mental health symptoms flare up, you could be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol like you did in the past.

Social Pressure

Peer pressure or societal norms related to drinking (like believing you must “cheers” with alcohol) can influence you to start drinking again.

Boredom and Loneliness

Addiction recovery can feel lonely sometimes. You have likely cut out former friends and places from your drinking days. It takes a while to build a new circle of friends and hobbies. You also probably focused most of your time and energy on alcohol. Even though it was a destructive behavior, there’s a void without it. Research shows that loneliness and boredom put people at high risk of relapse, so pay attention to these relapse warning signs.

Not Taking Care of Yourself

Poor self-care like lack of sleep, unhealthy eating, and not enough movement and exercise can play a role in alcohol relapse. Letting other healthy self-care practices fall by the wayside can put you at risk too. This could include neglecting things like:

  • Spiritual needs
  • Mindfulness
  • Therapy
  • Taking prescribed medications
  • Participating in activities you enjoy

When you ignore the things that keep you feeling well, you may lack the energy and motivation to resist triggers.

Relapse does not signify failure. Recovery from addiction is often characterized by a series of attempts and setbacks, and relapse can be part of the learning and recovery process. What’s crucial is recognizing the signs of relapse, seeking help, and re-engaging in treatment or support to prevent the situation from getting worse.

What Are Signs of Alcohol Relapse?

You may think of alcohol or drug relapse as something that happens out of the blue, but often there are signs well before. Substance abuse experts have identified three common stages of relapse: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse.

Recognizing these signs early on can be crucial for preventing a full-blown relapse and seeking appropriate support.

Phase 1: Emotional Relapse

During an emotional relapse, you haven’t begun thinking about substance abuse as an option, but you’re experiencing difficulties that can put you at risk for relapse. For example, you’re under a lot of stress; you’re going through relationship problems; or you’re just feeling down and unmotivated to go to recovery support groups, keep up with self-care, and follow other healthy practices. This puts you at risk for relapse because you likely dealt with these uncomfortable feelings by drinking alcohol in the past.

Some alcohol relapse signs during this stage include:


Isolation is a proven relapse risk factor for alcohol relapse. It might look like:

  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Not responding to texts and calls
  • Skipping social activities
  • Skipping Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery group meetings
  • Canceling therapy appointments

Poor Self-Care

This might look like neglecting the things you know keep you well and feeling strong in sobriety; for instance, eating nutritious food, exercising, and getting enough sleep.

Mood Changes

Co-occurring disorders put you at higher risk for addiction relapse. If you’re not managing mental illness symptoms with therapy, medication, and healthy practices, you may feel an urge to self-medicate with alcohol. Feelings of irritability, low mood, and discontent that often come in early sobriety can trigger a relapse as well.

Phase 2: Mental Relapse

If you don’t get help during emotional relapse, it could progress to mental relapse. During a mental relapse, you’re not using alcohol yet, but it might preoccupy your thoughts. You may think about how good it would feel to relieve difficult emotions, boredom, or stress with a drink. At first, you might try convincing yourself you wouldn’t actually do it, but toward the end of mental relapse, substance abuse becomes almost inevitable.

Some alcohol relapse signs during this stage include:

Feeling Nostalgic for Alcohol

This might look like only focusing on the good times from your active alcohol addiction and glossing over the heartache and misery alcohol abuse brought.

Hanging Out with Old Friends

Seeing old drinking friends or going by places where you used to drink is a red flag in addiction recovery.

Overconfidence in Your Addiction Recovery

During a mental relapse, you can become confident in your ability to drink in moderation. You might start telling yourself things like, “Just one or two drinks won’t hurt. I can handle it.” This is where it’s important to remember that addiction is a disease. There’s no such thing as just a little alcohol or drugs when you’ve had a substance use disorder.

Developing Substitute Addictions

The underlying issues behind compulsive behaviors are similar. Eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive gambling, and other destructive behaviors are all ways of self-medicating emotional pain and other issues. In a mental relapse you might “trade in” one addiction for another or move to another substance because you convince yourself it’s not as bad; for example, marijuana.


Over time, addiction affects brain health, rewiring the reward system so it develops strong associations between the people, places, and situations you associate with alcohol abuse, even triggering cravings. If you’re in a mental relapse, you might not be going out of your way to avoid these triggers, putting yourself at risk for cravings and urges.

Planning a Relapse

When you’re on the brink of an alcohol relapse, you might be planning how it will happen. This could mean mapping out:

  • Where you will go
  • Who you will be with
  • How much you will drink
  • When you will do it

This is your last chance to prevent relapse before it happens. Call your sponsor, tell a loved one, or return to an alcohol treatment program. Inpatient treatment at Footprints to Recovery is an excellent option for those in the throes of mental relapse.

Phase 3: Physical Relapse

A physical relapse is the point where you’re drinking again. Some recovery communities distinguish between a slip and a relapse. A slip is usually a one-time event where you immediately feel regret and want to get back on track right away. A relapse is a longer, more intentional return to alcohol abuse but you may still experience extreme feelings of guilt. You start falling back into your old patterns and lifestyle with no plans to return to sobriety anytime soon.

How to Avoid Alcohol Relapse

Avoiding alcohol relapse requires a combination of strategies, ongoing commitment, and a strong support system. Some may find it easier than others to say no to alcohol after recovery. Others find that the stress and triggers of life continue to drive the urge to drink even after recovery.

Here are some tips to help avoid alcohol relapse:

  1. Build a strong support system and surround yourself with supportive and understanding friends, family, and peers.
  2. Attend support group meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to stay connected with others in recovery.
  3. Continue therapy and engage in ongoing individual or group therapy to address underlying issues, identify triggers, work through cravings, and develop healthy coping skills.
  4. Develop coping strategies and practice them to manage stress, anxiety, and other emotions that could trigger the urge to drink.
  5. Engage in mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or creative activities as alternative ways to cope.
  6. Create a structured routine that includes productive activities, exercise, leisure time, and enough sleep.
  7. Identify and avoid situations, places, or people that trigger cravings or tempt you to drink.
  8. Prioritize your physical and mental health by eating well, exercising, getting adequate sleep, and engaging in activities that bring joy.
  9. Set achievable short-term and long-term goals related to your sobriety and personal development.

How to Help Someone Through Alcohol Relapse

Preventing relapse isn’t always possible, and it can be difficult to see a loved one struggle with it. While it may not be possible to force someone to go to rehab, you can support them. Helping someone through an alcohol relapse requires patience and understanding. Here are some ways to help a loved one who is experiencing or at risk of relapse:

  • Stay calm and non-judgmental: Approach the situation with empathy and without judgment. Relapse is a common part of recovery, and expressing disappointment or anger can make your loved one feel more isolated and ashamed, which can make relapse worse.
  • Encourage open communication: Create a safe space for the person to talk about their feelings, struggles, and reasons for the relapse. Listen and show that you care about their well-being. Don’t interrupt.
  • Offer support: Let your loved one know you are there for them and willing to help. Remind them that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Identify triggers: Work together to identify the triggers that led to the relapse. Understanding what situations, emotions, or stressors prompted alcohol relapse can help the person develop strategies to avoid or cope with these triggers in the future.
  • Reinforce positive steps: Acknowledge your loved one’s efforts to seek help and their previous achievements in recovery. Remind them of the progress they’ve made and the skills they’ve learned.
  • Encourage professional help: Suggest seeking professional help, such as the team at Footprints to Recovery. Professional alcohol addiction treatment can provide your loved one with effective coping strategies and a structured plan for recovery.

Getting Help for Alcohol Relapse

When you relapse back into the same damaging drinking patterns as before, the best thing to do is get help from a professional addiction treatment program. Getting professional addiction help significantly increases the likelihood of achieving and maintaining long-term recovery.

How Can Professional Alcohol Treatment Help?

Footprints to Recovery can help you manage emotional relapse through our treatment programs and expert therapists. Our approach to emotional recovery includes teaching emotion regulation skills, where you learn to manage intense emotions without resorting to substance use. These techniques promote healthy emotional expression and self-control. Emotional regulation is useful at all levels of addiction treatment.

Don’t let addiction relapse threaten your future. Substance abuse treatment is a phone call away. When you trust a therapy program from the professionals at Footprints to Recovery, you’re putting yourself in the best position to succeed. The behavioral therapy experts at Footprints to Recovery can assist with dual diagnosis treatment for any co-occurring mental health issues. Our programs are safe and effective for all.




There Are Better Days Ahead.

Our Colorado addiction treatment centers provide the tools you need to construct a purposeful life in recovery and teach you how to maintain it.

If you have any questions or require additional information to determine if Footprints to Recovery is the right fit for your recovery, please reach out to us at any time.

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Evan Gove
Author Evan Gove
Medically Reviewed by Lindsay Hutchison, MS, LPC, LCADC
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