Top 7 Relapse Prevention Skills
Fear of relapse can feel debilitating. With these relapse prevention skills and tools, you can significantly decrease the risk of relapse.

Top 7 Relapse Prevention Skills

Recovery from a substance use disorder isn’t a quick process. On the contrary: getting over a dependence, coping with withdrawal symptoms, and overpowering the urge to use is a lifelong process. Sometimes, people lose decades to addiction, entering treatment but then relapsing repeatedly, which leads to stigma. It is a process of personal growth filled with developmental milestones. And, at any point of recovery, there’s a risk of relapsing. This makes relapse prevention skills essential to learn and understand.

Relapse prevention tools are crucial in the journey towards a happy life in recovery. Still, there’s a common misconception that these should only be implemented when one starts feeling the urge to use. This is not true. In fact, any recovering person should implement them into their daily schedule and routine to prevent or at least reduce the risk of cravings.

1. Know your triggers

For most people, the reason for initially abusing alcohol or drugs is to cope with negative emotions, reduce stress, escape boredom, or even reward themselves. And after when an addiction develops, all of these reasons become primary triggers for using. Also, research shows that the common post-acute withdrawal symptoms, such as insomnia and fatigue, are among the most common potential triggers for relapsing. Triggers can also be external, including specific people, places, or things that remind you of your past use.

It helps to make a list – anyone recovering from addiction must know your triggers to stay ahead of them.

2. Care for yourself

Once you become more aware of your triggers, you can start replacing your addiction with a healthy obsession. It’s one of the most important and effective relapse prevention skills one can teach themselves.

An image of a nutritious meal.

Start by implementing a balanced diet and physical exercise. Taking care of yourself helps maintain a stable mood, thus leading to increased energy, concentration, motivation, and quality good night’s sleep. A single small act of self-care holds enormous power – it can snowball, bring about other healthy decisions and self-confidence, and boost your sense of health and well-being. All this put together leads to better coping abilities.

3. H.A.L.T.

H.A.L.T. is an acronym used very frequently in support groups and treatment programs. It stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, four negative states that can trigger many recovering alcoholics and addicts to start using again as a way to escape them. So, whenever you start craving or generally feeling “off” and anxious, consider if you might be feeling any of these symptoms.

To improve your chances of recovery, you must fuel your body and brain with healthy food, fill your time with hobbies and activities you enjoy, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and stay mindful. 

4. “Mindfulness” meditation

Any form of meditation carries countless benefits for people in recovery. You can reduce tension and stress, improve your sleep patterns, learn how to manage unpleasant feelings, improve concentration and attention, etc. And the good thing about it, you can do it anywhere, even from the comfort of your home.

“Mindfulness” meditation, in specific, teaches self-awareness. There have been various studies comparing this approach to traditional addiction treatment approaches. It proved to be more effective in preventing relapses over the long term because when people are more self-aware and understand what drives their cravings, they’re better able to cope with potential triggers.

Participants of the mindfulness meditation relapse prevention program are encouraged to accept their cravings and “roll with” them rather than fight them. This is a learned skill, one that requires practice.

A simple practice of this approach, developed by Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist monk and Spirit Rock co-founder, is a mantra one is supposed to repeat three times while focusing on breathing:

May I be filled with loving kindness.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

May I be happy.

The key is to pay attention, become aware of your surroundings, focus on where you are, what you are doing, the people you are with, and more – with no judgment. You can start by writing down your daily activities and keep track of what you’re thinking and feeling.

5. Remember your reasons for quitting

The urge will hit at one point or another. The important thing in that moment is to try and remember the reason you started down the path to recovery, to begin with. Remind yourself how it felt like when your body was going through detox and how out of control you felt when you were using. Think about the embarrassing moments you’ve gone through or the people you may have hurt. This is not the person you are; it is not what defines you. Imagine and focus on how much better your life will become when you stop using. Think about rebuilding damaged relationships, getting and keeping your job, getting healthy again, etc.

So, what’s driving you to quit? Think about it.

6. Grounding techniques

Stress and anxiety tend to be the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to recovery. What you need is something that could help you focus on the moment and immediate surroundings and avoid unhealthy thoughts, negative self-talk, and cravings. The 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique is a powerful tool that helps prevent relapse by taking you through the five senses and reminding you of the present moment. 

Woman trying out a grounding technique.

So, take a deep breath and:

5 – LOOK: Look around. What are five things you can see? Say them out loud.

4 – FEEL: Pay close attention to your body. Name four things you can feel. Whether it’s your feet warm in your socks, hair on the back of your neck, the chair you’re sitting on… – say them out loud.

3 – LISTEN: Close your eyes. What can you hear around you? Your tummy rumbling? The traffic outside? Name three sounds.

2 – SMELL: What can you smell? If you cannot smell anything, move to another spot or name two of your favorite smells.

1 – TASTE: Say one thing that you can taste or name your favorite thing to taste.

End with a long, deep breath.

Focusing on each of your senses helps with gaining self-awareness and increasing mindfulness. Consequently, you’ll feel it’s much easier to overcome negative feelings and thoughts and accomplish your daily tasks because you feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

7. Get help

When an urge hits, it can be tough to manage it alone, particularly if you’re only beginning your path to recovery. So, never shy away from asking for help.

If the cravings become too strong, make sure you have a safe person to talk to. It’s good to devise an emergency contact list and keep it on you at all times. This list should be comprised of healthy family members and friends or people who are also in recovery and whom you can call for support.

Woman comforting her male friend.

Secondly, you can join a support group. These kinds of groups can offer support, accountability, and education. Finally, it can also allow you to meet peers who know best what you’re going through. Having a sponsor and peer support can prevent relapse and significantly boost your chances for recovery by decreasing your feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Lastly, you can contact a dedicated treatment provider to find out more about inpatient or outpatient treatment programs and decide what’s best for you. For instance, outpatient treatment allows you to continue to live at home as you recover. This means you can be with your kids or family members in need, keep up with your job, stay on track with your school activities, and still have continued support from your treatment provider.

Plus, you’ll learn much more about essential relapse prevention skills that you may need on a daily basis.

Final thoughts

Yes, addiction is hard to beat, but it’s a far cry from a permanent affliction. Learning how to implement these relapse prevention skills into your daily schedule can significantly reduce the risk of relapse. And don’t give up! CDC and National Institute on Drug Abuse published a study in 2020 which showed that three out of four people struggling with addiction eventually recover. So, people get better and rebuild their lives, thriving in long-term recovery, reconnecting with their loved ones, and enjoying economic success. One just needs enough time, enough chances, and enough help.