Relapse is, sadly, part of the healing process for many people who have addictions. At one moment, they make a commitment to leading a life that’s free of any kind of intoxicating substance at all. But in the next moment, they seem overwhelmed by the urge to use, and they comply with that urge by returning to the substances they swore they wouldn’t ever touch again. While a relapse could take hold in response to almost any kind of outside trigger, it’s common for people to relapse to drugs due to stress. Understanding why that’s the case could be a key to lasting sobriety.
Priming the Brain
Building on the Damage
While stress can make people start using drugs, it can also force people into a return to drugs, even when they no longer want to use the substances. In a study of the issue in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers suggest that people who used drugs in order to medicate stress train the brain to call out for drugs when the next stressful event hits. It’s a solution that has worked for the brain in the past, so when the next stressful thing appears, it’s a solution the brain calls for again. These cravings come from deep inside the mind, far below conscious thought, and they can be incredibly difficult for people to control. When cravings like this hit, a relapse seems almost certain.
The danger of relapse is most profound when the stress is followed by contact with some reminder of drugs. This reminder could come in the form of:
- A person who once sold drugs
- A place in which the person took drugs
- A photo or television depiction of drug use
- Seeing someone using drugs
These additional reminders can put the brain into a cravings overdrive state, and the pressure a person might feel to relapse to drugs could be simply overwhelming.
Overcoming the Urge
While stress can certainly make people feel as though they must relapse, there’s a significant amount of work that can be done in treatment in order to keep the use from taking place. For example, in therapy sessions, experts might help their clients to identify the situations that seem to make them feel stressed, and they might teach them how to meditate, visualize or otherwise get away from the stressful thoughts without resorting to drugs. This kind of awareness can be incredibly powerful, and it could be just what some people need in order to recover.
Similarly, therapists can also help their clients to process their prior sources of stress, so they won’t always be dealing with old feelings and old concerns. Once people have the opportunity to put the past behind them and focus on the future, they might not be hobbled by feelings of nervousness and stress, and that might remove yet another pressure point that could lead to a relapse.
If you need this kind of help for yourself or for someone you care about, please contact us. We can put you in touch with Foundations Recovery Network programs that can provide you with the treatments you need to leave drugs behind, and the therapies that can boost your abstinence skills for life. Just call us, and our admissions coordinators can help you to find the program that’s just right for you and for your individual needs.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton