Relapse Prevention Game Plan: Recognizing Warning Signs and Managing Urges

Sudden urges to use are part of everyone’s recovery. It’s important to note that relapse is a very normal part of addiction recovery, however it can feel disappointing and defeating when it happens. Know that relapse does not mean failure, it’s just a part of your journey. Knowing your triggers, identifying urges coming, and having a plan of action is an important step to take to reduce your chance of relapse. It only takes a moment to succumb to drug and alcohol cravings, and having just one beer can send your brain back into addiction mode. In this article, we’re going to cover the different stages of relapse, discuss common triggers, and make a game plan for how to cope with the urge to use.

The Stages of Drug and Alcohol Relapse

It’s important to recognize the pattern that all addicted individuals take when they begin inching towards relapse. Although it may seem like a sudden decision to pick up that drink, the truth is that the path to relapse starts much earlier. Life events can trigger feelings of anxiety, and can lead you to consider reaching to a substance for comfort. You may begin fantasizing about using, or thinking of your former drug use in a positive light. At this point the dominoes are ready to topple, and you may find yourself reaching for the phone to call an old friend to “catch up,” but really you’re positioning yourself to have easy access to your substance.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is common in the early stages of getting clean. A lot of the time it’s driven by pure brain chemistry. Your brain is still withdrawing and going through periods of massive rewiring. Such unstable brain chemistry can trigger bursts of anxiety, stress, anger, depression, and defensiveness.

Common Emotional Triggers

Withdrawal symptoms are only one type of trigger. People, places, and events can also put you in an uncomfortable emotional space and push you to have urges to use. Early on in recovery, you will inevitably be triggered countless times. Recognizing what triggers you can save you a lot of stress in the long run. When you know what your main triggers are, you can do your best to avoid them.

The following are common triggers:

  1. Being hungry can cause your blood sugar to fall. Low blood sugar and an empty stomach are common triggers for irritability for everyone, including non-addicts. Put your health first. 
  2. Places where you used to use or that remind you of places where you used to use.
  3. Stress at work.
  4. Financial problems.
  1. Getting overconfident that you have your addiction under control and no longer need alcohol and drug treatment and a support system.
  2. Romantic relationships and problems in the home.
  3. Being socially isolated and spending too much time in your thoughts.

When you start to see the pattern of your emotional flare-ups, it gets easier to talk yourself down from them. Your sharp rise in anger is most likely the effect of post-acute withdrawal symptoms. Take a deep breath and let the moment pass. Call your mentor, sponsor, or sober coach if you have one. If you or someone you know is trying to brave recovery on their own, Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is here to help answer any questions. Our 10-week Intensive Outpatient Program is a convenient way to receive treatment while still being able to live your day-to-day life.  

Before you identify all your triggers, it’s critical to have a contingency plan for how to deal with emotionally challenging moments. If feelings to use snowball into mental relapse, it can be more difficult to reel yourself back in.

When you’re feeling triggered, here are a few things you can do to bring yourself back to center:

  1. Call someone who you know is supportive of your recovery and explain to them how you’re feeling. Keep in mind, people who care about you appreciate moments like these and want to help. It can be hard for loved ones to know how to support you in your recovery and it can be a relief when you reach out. Addicts all to often keep their emotions bottled up because they don’t want to be an inconvenience. This can be dangerous and lead to relapse.
  2. A quick, vigorous workout can be a fast and effective way to shake your mind loose. Exercise is great for the brain while in recovery because it encourages the expression of critical proteins that help heal and repair damaged neurons. Stress relief through movement is one of the best ways to immediately reduce anxiety and spiraling thoughts. 
  3. If you can, take a timeout and treat yourself to something that’s stress-reducing and harmless like watching your favorite show. Don’t think of this as a distraction, but rather a chance for your brain to move through whatever moment of instability it was experiencing. If post-acute withdrawal symptoms were to blame, a little time might be all you need.


Mental relapse happens when you fail to deal head-on with your emotions in the emotional relapse phase. You may find yourself thinking fondly about your using days and cherry pick good memories while overlooking all the damage your addiction caused. Prior to your mental relapse, you may have been determined to avoid friends who you used to use with, but now suddenly you want to reconnect. You tell yourself that you just want to catch up, but in the back of your mind, you know that you’re inching towards relapse.

One of the best ways to stop relapse is to play the movie of your future decision making all the way through. Imagine that you go hang out with those old friends. You know that when you do, your urge to use will grow stronger. Visualize relapsing and experience it in your mind. Then imagine getting caught and kicked out of counseling, losing your job, going to jail, or overdosing, whatever the worst case scenario may be. Finally, pick up the phone and tell someone you love everything you just visualized and how it made you feel. Sometimes you never know how close you are to relapse until you share your story.

When most people think of relapse, the final stage of physical relapse is what comes to mind. From what we’ve just learned though, physical relapse is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s rare that a recovering addict is having a great week and an even more incredible day when they finally reach for a drink or drug. Relapse is usually an accumulation of negative feelings that build momentum into destructive thoughts and actions.

There are certain places and people that all recovering addicts, especially ones still dealing with post-acute withdrawal symptoms, should avoid. These include bars, parties with heavy drinking, concerts, and friends who use. You can’t take a drink or a drug if it isn’t physically within reach.



Relapse can start with a fight you have with your partner and end two weeks later with you visiting an old friend who still uses. To prevent yourself from relapsing, you need to be able to recognize your triggers and stop the chain reaction before it takes on a mind of its own. It’s never too late to pull yourself out of it. Do what you can to destress. If you can’t calm down and get things into perspective, don’t hesitate to call someone who you know you can talk to. Share your feelings and get their feedback. Often laying your thoughts and emotions on the table is all it takes to get your mind straight. If you or someone you know in the Phoenix, Arizona area is struggling with addiction, please don’t hesitate to contact Stonewall Institute Treatment Center. Call today at 602-535-6468 or email us at