Recovering from Relapse

In recovery, change is a process that never unfolds perfectly. As addicts learn the recovery lifestyle, it is essential to also learn how to respond when they fail to maintain sobriety. Depending on the degree of their acting out behavior, this experience is referred to as a slip or a relapse. No matter how it is defined, a person’s response to this kind of setback reveals the strength of their recovery process.

Shame is a normal experience in moments of perceived failure. Self-criticism naturally results from feelings of shame, yet a critical mindset only increases the chances of repeating the behavior (click here to learn more, start at 18:59). The body responds to self-criticism by raising cortisol, which is not helpful for those wanting to make changes. On the other hand, a self-compassionate response, increases one’s ability to get back on track quickly. Here is an example of how a person in recovery could respond to a slip or relapse, that supports connecting with self and with others:

Using a journal, answer the following:

  • What triggered me to want to act out?
  • What am I saying to myself about my behavior? (Words of self-criticism, shame, self-compassion?)

 Practice a self-compassion break:

  • Close your eyes. Name all of the feelings you feel right now (example: guilt, shame, anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, etc). Say to yourself “This is a moment of suffering”. This is mindfulness.
  •  Common humanity (this is not meant to justify the choice but to normalize the feelings that result and decrease shame, which is unproductive) – Say to yourself the following phrases:

 “Suffering is a part of life”

 “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes when they are trying to make big changes.”

 “My imperfections don’t mean that something is wrong with me but only that I am human”

  “There are many people who feel this right now as a result of their choices”

  • Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and feel yourself breathing (Or use another gesture of soothing physical touch that is non-sexual). This gesture combined with kind words produces Oxytocin – deepening a feeling of connection and comfort.
  •  Self-kindness message – Say to yourself the following phrases:

                        “May I be kind to myself”

                        “May I give myself the compassion that I need”

                        “May I forgive myself”

                        “May I be patient with myself”

                        “May I be strong”

                        “May I keep moving forward in my recovery”

Using a journal, answer the following:

  • What tools can I use next time I am in a similar situation?
  • How can I limit access to this form of acting out in the future?

Reach out to someone and tell them about your slip/relapse (Today or as soon as possible. This includes both your Higher Power and another human being). This decreases shame & secrecy.

(Created by Forest Benedict, Self-compassion Break adapted from Dr Kristin Neff’s version)

Using the above worksheet can train anyone who is working toward change to become a supportive mentor to themselves rather than their own worst critic. It can provide motivation to get up quickly and move forward, much like this video from Chariots of Fire.

While slips are often disheartening, it is our hope that those in recovery will learn to view them as opportunities for reconnection and learning, instead of excuses to criticize their efforts. Recovery is a process that takes time, effort, and resilience.  May you remember as you seek change in your life that mistakes do “not say anything about who you are, but say something about the process and what matters is how you respond afterward” (Dr Kelly McGonigal).

For additional insights on how to handle relapse, here’s another perspective by Dr Milton S Magness called “After a Relapse”.

CLICK HERE to read about how to “Strengthen the Brain to Resist Relapse

– Written by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C, MFT Intern, LifeSTAR of the Central Valley

This entry was posted in Addiction, Change, Recovery, Science, Self-Compassion. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Recovering from Relapse

  1. Great post – so glad to share it with my readers 🙂

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