Alcohol Relapse: Signs, Stages and Statistics

Despite its accepted legal and social status, alcohol is a very dangerous drug.

Alcoholism Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services state that approximately 88,000 Americans die each year from alcohol misuse, abuse, and addiction.

For those who struggle with alcohol abuse, alcoholism treatment is their best option to find lasting recovery.

While many recovering alcoholics work hard in maintaining their hard-earned sobriety, relapse alcoholism can be an unfortunate reality.

While those in recovery don’t want to think about it, alcohol relapse is an unfortunate but common occurrence. According to some alcohol relapse statistics, it is estimated that 90 percent of alcoholics will experience at least one relapse within the first four years of their recovery.

The specter of alcohol relapse is always present in sobriety, but it doesn’t have to become a major obstacle.

The most effective way to minimize a relapse in alcoholism is to fully understand what relapse really is and how it affects your recovery. The following article will provide you with a definition of relapse, reasons why alcoholics relapse, and the stages and signs of relapse.

Additionally, the article will provide ways to strengthen your sobriety while keeping the cravings and urges that lead to relapse at bay.

What is a relapse?

Before you can put measures in place to minimize relapse in your sobriety, you must have a basic understanding of the concept of a relapse.

Simply defined, an alcohol relapse is returning to active drinking after a period of recovery and abstaining from alcohol use.

Many view alcoholism as a progressive disease and relapse would signal a return of that disease after a remission.

The act of relapse creates intense guilt and shame for those who were in recovery. If the behaviors that lead to the relapse are not addressed, recovering alcoholics can once again become trapped in the vicious cycle of alcohol abuse.

As a result, their addiction worsens, and their downward spiral can lead to deteriorating physical and mental health—and even death.

When you talk about relapse, it is important to understand the difference between a slip and a relapse.

A slip can be seen as a lapse or a brief return to drinking. A slip is addressed, resolved, and can embolden an individual to strengthen their recovery.

Relapse, on the other hand, signals a return to regular chronic use of alcohol and a full-blown addiction. While both concepts indicate that a person has returned to addictive behavior, the difference between a slip and an alcohol relapse is the fact that people who slip are proactive in returning back to their program of recovery.

Why do alcoholics relapse?

Data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers has shown an upward trend in the intentional use of atypical antipsychotics between 2012 and 20181. Of all atypical antipsychotics, Seroquel is abused most often. Quetiapine has also gained popularity as a street drug, where it is known by names such as Susie-Q, Baby Heroin or Squirrel and is administered by inhaling or injecting. 

Despite its high potential for abuse, it has not been linked scientifically to addiction. In other words, those who abuse the drug without the recommendation of a doctor may not necessarily develop a chemical dependence on it, the required threshold to be considered addiction. As a result, the drug is not classified as highly addictive by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Nonetheless, animal studies2 as well as independent case studies3 have shown that dependence and subsequent withdrawal symptoms are possible.


To answer the question of why do alcoholics relapse, the most common reason is stress. Stress is perhaps the number one trigger in relapse alcoholism. Some of the most common stresses recovering alcoholics face on a daily basis include loss of a loved one, financial burdens, long work hours, and family tensions.

Surprisingly, positive events such as a job promotion or entering a new intimate relationship can also trigger an alcohol relapse event. No matter its source, stress reduces a person’s energy and focus. As a result, a person in recovery becomes more vulnerable to relapse back to alcoholism.

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Another reason why alcoholics relapse is complacency. Complacency occurs when people become too confident in their recovery. While there is no problem in being confident, there is a fine line between confident and cocky—especially in sobriety. Alcoholism is a cunning and powerful condition, and when those in recovery think they are “cured” or don’t need to work their program trouble ensues.

When alcoholics become complacent, they may feel that one drink won’t hurt. This is dangerous thinking and a red flag that alcohol relapse is imminent.


Lying is a difficult habit to break for addicts across the board. When you think of it, addiction relies on lying, dishonesty, and manipulation in order to keep alive and growing. When you get sober from relapse alcoholism, you will find that lying may be very difficult to move past.

If you have trouble being honest and transparent in your recovery, your chances for alcohol relapse increase.

Unrealistic Expectations of Yourself and Others

Your recovery is measured by small victories.

For many who are in recovery, drug relapses occur when people have unrealistic expectations for their recovery.

Recovering addicts want their sobriety to happen “right now” and fail to see that recovery is a journey in itself. If they feel they aren’t recovering “fast enough” or feel they have failed because they still have cravings, it can set them up for a drug relapse down the road.

These unrealistic expectations can also be seen in how we see other people.

As already stated, addiction is predicated on lies and manipulation.

As a result, family and friends may be resentful and angry towards those in recovery—even though they are taking positive steps to improve themselves. Many who are sober will not understand that it will take time for loved ones to begin to trust them again.

Additionally, many in recovery may be disappointed that family and friends may not readily accept the “new and improved” sober person.

The Stages of Relapse in Alcoholism

For addicts, family and friends alike, an alcohol relapse is seen as a singular moment that is spontaneous and in the moment. While that act of relapse itself can happen in a moment, alcohol relapse is a process that can develop over a period of weeks, months—and even years.

A relapse back to alcohol can be seen as occurring in three distinct stages: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse. Each stage can be described as the following:

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the first and most subtle stage. In this stage, you aren’t thinking about drinking or using drugs, but you are displaying behaviors and attitudes that are unhealthy and are psychologically draining.

Examples of these include:

  • Resentment
  • Anxiety
  • Prolonged anger
  • Isolation
  • Insomnia
  • Defensiveness

During this phase, you may start abandoning proper self-care and not eating or sleeping in a healthy manner. As a result, you start feeling less confident and your self-esteem begins to wane.

Mental Relapse

The second stage of alcohol relapse is the mental relapse stage. This second stage is marked by increasing thoughts of using alcohol. It is often described as a war going on inside your head. The cravings to use alcohol start to increase in both frequency and intensity.

You may start rationalizing why drinking is acceptable. You may also start to think about the good times that you had with friends while drinking or on other drugs. Some of the tell-tale signs of mental relapse are the following:

  • Hanging out with friends and acquaintances with which you used alcohol and other drugs
  • Fantasizing about using and about relapsing
  • Lying and manipulation

If these thoughts are not addressed in a proactive manner, their pull will become stronger. As a result, your resolve will weaken over time and you become increasingly vulnerable to the actual act of relapsing to alcohol.

Physical Relapse

The final stage in the drug relapse continuum is a physical relapse. As the title states, this stage is the actual time you actually begin drinking after a period of abstinence. Those emotions that have built up over time have become too powerful to overcome.

With physical relapse, you have justified using alcohol and—in simple terms—talked yourself back into drinking despite the enormous amounts of shame and guilt you feel. Those feelings generate a sense of failure, and failure can keep you stuck in the vicious cycle of addiction, recovery, then relapse alcoholism.

Signs of Alcohol Relapse

As stated earlier, a slip can be seen as a lapse that can be a one-time event.

When a lapse occurs, it is a tipping point where one must be proactive in seeking help to regain sobriety or become a victim of full-blown drug addiction.

Recovery after relapse

If you have experienced a relapse, it is important to get back on track and be proactive. It may be tempting to stay stuck in pity and shame after relapse alcoholism but doing so decreases your chances of recovery. The following are measures you can take to get back on track:

Be Accountable

After a relapse back to alcohol use, it can be easy to point fingers at people and situations which you feel caused you to drink. No matter the situation, you must realize that you alone have the power to let people and situations control you. Be honest with yourself and others and fully take responsibility for your alcohol relapse.
stages of alcohol relapse

Seek Help

After an alcohol relapse, it is crucial that you get help to get on the right path. It is highly advisable to increase the number of 12-step meetings, increase your meetings with your sponsor, and seek some sort of outpatient treatment.

These valuable resources will provide the tools and much needed support you need to get back into recovery. You can seek comfort and strength in the fact that others have experienced relapse alcoholism and found their way back to sobriety.

Understand Your Triggers

A necessary step in recovering after relapse is to identify and understand your triggers.

A trigger can simply be thought of as anything that brings forth cravings and thoughts of using alcohol. Take an honest look at the people, places, and events that create cravings and find constructive ways to deal with those triggers.

Refine Your Coping Skills

Another crucial piece to keep in mind when recovering after relapse is to refine your life and coping skills. In many instances, people fall victim to alcohol relapse because they aren’t able to deal with stress and negative thoughts and behaviors. Work with a counselor or sponsor to target weak coping skills. Once you improve your coping skills, you will gain more confidence.

Take Care of Yourself

Perhaps the most important part of recovering after relapse is to take care of yourself. Be sure you eat a balanced and healthy diet and get restful sleep every night. You should also incorporate time into your daily schedule for exercise, quiet time, and those hobbies and pastimes that give you happiness and joy.

You should also have people in your life that truly care for you and will support your decision to get and stay sober.

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Wrapping things up

Relapse alcoholism can be a major blow to your recovery. With all the hard work you have put in to get and stay sober, a drug relapse can make you feel like a failure and that you will never break free from alcohol addiction.

While it is disappointing, recovery from relapse is attainable by following the steps presented in this article. Don’t let an alcohol relapse take control of your life—you have the tools and support you need to break the cycle of alcohol abuse once and for all.

Are you struggling with alcohol or drug addiction? Have you experienced an alcohol relapse or drug relapse and need help to get over the hump? If you have answered yes, call the addiction professionals at Riverwalk Ranch toll-free today.

Don’t let relapse alcoholism ruin your esteem and life; call Riverwalk Ranch today and get back on the path to recovery.