Man struggling with emotions

Top 5 Emotional States That Can Trigger a Relapse

By Nina Bradshaw is a professionally qualified social worker and therapist in the UK. She earned a Master's Degree in Personality Disorder Studies, a Master's Degree in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and a Master's Degree in Sociology/Social Policy/Social Work.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

Man struggling with emotions

Without a doubt, getting clean and/or sober is an incredibly difficult task. Many people will tell you that admitting you have a problem is the most difficult first step. To some extent, this is true. However, actually getting into treatment and getting clean, then staying clean is also extremely hard. Many addicts relapse and do so for a variety of reasons, whether it happens during their early days, or even further down the road of sobriety.

Here are 5 of the most common pitfalls for both newly recovering addicts and those with years of sobriety under their belt.

Once you reach the peak of your sobriety journey, the most difficult part begins: staying there.

1. Stress

Whether it’s about work, financial concerns or relationship worries, we all have times when we experience stress and need to work harder to maintain our recovery. Stress is one of the biggest reasons people reach for their substance of choice—wanting to take a break from reality for a short space of time.

Learning to manage our stress in more productive ways will guard it against causing a relapse. You can do this by exercising regularly, sleeping well and eating a healthy diet. Some meditation, time out for yourself and willingness to ask for support during a stressful situation can do wonders in reducing your stress levels and preventing it from becoming a trigger.

2. Tiredness

Being tired and cranky leaves us feeling emotional and more susceptible to a relapse. When we’re tired, we become like cantankerous children—snappy, irritable and unreasonable. This is the perfect set of emotions that can lead to us blowing our serenity and reaching for our old coping strategies. This is why the importance of getting a regular night’s sleep cannot be overemphasized.

Maintaining our equilibrium and functioning in a calm and thoughtful manner is pivotal when it comes to staying sober. If you find it difficult to sleep, try breathing exercises, a hot bath or a warm milky drink before bed. If nothing seems to help, speak to your doctor.

3. Boredom

Boredom is one of the most common feelings in early recovery that can lead to a relapse. Once we are over the “pink cloud” of our initial achievement, we often struggle to find activities that fill the huge amount of time we used to spend abusing substances. Now that we are no longer using, the amount of drama in our lives is vastly reduced. This is when boredom sets in.

You have to put the effort into finding new activities to fill the time you spent using your substance of choice. This can be anything, including sports, exercise, reading, a new hobby, watching TV, journaling, tidying up around the house or something you used to enjoy before you started using. The options are virtually endless. Find something that will distract you and take your mind off the urge to use.

4. Complacency

This is one for those with longer sobriety. Complacency is a very dangerous thing. It can make us feel as though we’ve already made it to the top and cause us to relax our vigilance. Truth is, this is the time we are actually highly vulnerable to a relapse. It is crucial that you always remain vigilant, keep in touch with your support group, attend meetings if you have to—anything that reminds you of the continuous work that needs to be done in order to maintain sobriety.

Although recovery gets easier with time, it is also often easy to forget where we came from. Even many years down the line, we must always remind ourselves about the risks that come with complacency.

5. Overconfidence

We tend to assume that it is the negative emotions that are more likely to lead to a slip-up, but it can also be the more positive-feeling ones that can trigger a return to old habits. One of the most common positive-feeling emotions that can bring one to relapse is overconfidence. Believing in yourself is definitely a plus, and is something to be encouraged. But when self-confidence tips into being a little too much, trouble can arrive in the form of relapse. Use recovery buddies for regular feedback to ensure you are not heading for a fall.

For as long as you remain aware of the most common causes of a relapse, you’ll be able to successfully guard your sobriety. It pays to always remember that when it comes to staying clean, your abstinence is dependent on your continued vigilance. Remember, most people drink or use drugs based on their emotions. Whether they’re sad, happy, anxious or depressed, the common emotional landscape of everyone’s life can be a cause of vulnerability for the recovering addict.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-772-8219 to talk to a treatment specialist.

Stay Connected
Subscribe to our newsletter to get addiction help, recovery inspiration and community tips delivered to your inbox.
No Thanks. I'm not Interested