Why Are Drug Addiction Relapse Rates So High?
Like other chronic diseases such as heart disease or asthma, treatment for drug addiction usually is not a cure-all. However, addiction can be managed successfully through treatments that counteract disruptive effects on the brain and behavior of an individual. Addiction is known as a relapsing disease. Due to its chronic nature, relapse or a return to drug use after an attempt to get sober can be part of the process. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that around 40 – 60% of individuals with addiction will relapse. Why is this? The simple answer is, drug use causes changes in the brain and the individuals behavior. The brain is altered, making it more difficult to have self-control and resist drug use.
There are many causes for relapse, but a few main causes are:
1. Exposure to triggers.
Triggers such as people, places, things or emotions that remind a recovering individual of substance use are often causes of relapse. For example, driving past a familiar house where an individual used drugs or alcohol. These triggers cause intense cravings or thoughts, leading an individual to think they need a substance to cope.
2. Failure to seek additional assistance after rehab.
Research has shown that individuals who continue with some form of aftercare upon completing a treatment episode are more likely to remain in recovery. However, many individuals who complete rehab do not follow through with aftercare treatment recommendations. Aftercare recommendations provide extended care after rehab and may include psychotherapy, mutual support groups (NA/AA, Refuge Recovery, SMART), education, and other preventative programs to provide further support. Access to a strong support system is extremely important for preventing relapse.
3. Internal Factors.
Common internal factors such as depression, anxiety, resentment, denial, and anger that are left untreated can lead to relapse. It’s often seen that such factors can lead to an individual to seeking drugs or alcohol to find relief. As discussed above, they may also present themselves as triggers to use.
4. Biological factors.
As discussed above addiction is a brain disorder that causes people to engage in compulsive drug use despite knowing the physical, legal and social consequences. Addiction has been misunderstood for many years as a choice instead of a disease. Without treatment, aftercare, support and a relapse prevention plan biological factors of addiction can lead to relapse.
Luckily, addiction is a treatable disorder with research-based methods to help people stop using drugs and alcohol in order to return to living productive lives, otherwise known as being in recovery. Research shows that when treating addictions to opioids, medication-assisted treatment should be the first line of treatment, combined with a form of behavioral therapy or counseling. Medications are used to detoxify an individual from drugs, but detoxification is not the same as treatment and not enough to help an individual recover. For individuals with addictions to drugs like stimulants or cannabis, no medications are currently available to assist in treatment, so treatment consists of behavioral therapies and counseling. Treatment should be personalized to address everyone’s drug use patterns and drug-related medical, mental, and social problems.
Discontinuing substance use is one part of the recovery process. It’s imperative that a well thought out relapse prevention plan, alongside an aftercare plan, is developed and utilized. Some addiction treatment programs, like Footprints to Recovery, have developed Alumni Programs which are built to provide individuals post-treatment education, resources, and support. As discussed above, a support system and continuing care are vital components of a successful relapse prevention plan.
Co-Author: Nicole Horta,LSW,LCADC – Footprints to Recovery – Clinical Therapist