Alcoholic relapse is common but it is avoidable and it is treatable.

Perhaps you’re reading this as you or a loved one are in alcoholic relapse. Perhaps you’re reading this as you want to know how to avoid alcoholic relapse or how to spot the signs of alcohol relapse in a family member or loved one.

A relapse on alcohol where there has been a previous alcohol problem can be devastating for many reasons. The individual who has relapsed will often delay seeking help or being honest about their relapse as they feel a great deal of shame, guilt and an overwhelming sense of failure. These feelings can drive their alcohol use underground and escalate their drinking to a point they have never previously experienced before.

Alcoholic relapse is life threatening and something that few want to discuss openly. We want to reassure you that if you are currently experiencing an alcoholic relapse that recovery is possible, no matter how bad or how hopeless things may seem.

The Stages of Alcoholic Relapse

Alcoholic relapse doesn’t just happen overnight. There are stages that precede the actual picking up of an alcoholic drink. Spotting the early stages of alcoholic relapse in yourself or someone you love may help you to prevent a relapse from happening.

Stage 1 of Alcoholic Relapse:

Emotional relapse

Way before relapsing on alcohol, an individual in recovery will experience an emotional relapse. What do we mean by this?

The individual will start to feel unable to express how they are feeling. Perhaps they start telling themselves that others will be disinterested or judge them for how they are feeling – so they stop talking. Emotionally they may feel numb, angry or frightened. Unprocessed emotions start to take over and can feel overwhelming.

An individual who is in emotional relapse is likely to withdraw from others and become dishonest around their thoughts and feelings. They are likely to feel alone and detached from life and start to wonder if recovery is worth the pain they are experiencing.

Sometimes a life event triggers an emotional relapse, but not always. The break down of a relationship, poor health, financial worries or the death of a loved one are known triggers.

To help someone who you see is in this stage of alcoholic relapse it is important to not be dismissive or judgemental. Encourage them to talk openly about how they are feeling. It may be that they will find counselling, therapy or a visit to their GP or mental health worker beneficial if they feel unable to cope emotionally.

If the individual has achieved sobriety through a mutual aid group such as a 12 step fellowship or SMART recovery, encourage them to re-engage with what has previously worked for them. If they have attended alcohol rehab and have an aftercare package – encourage them to speak to the rehab.

An emotional relapse can last for some time and more often than not there is an underlying cause. The first step is to encourage them to talk frankly with you and to offer support in helping them access the correct help.

Stage 2 of Alcoholic Relapse:

Mental Relapse

Following an emotional relapse and preceding picking up an alcoholic drink, comes a mental relapse. What does a mental relapse look like?

An individual in recovery and suffering from a mental relapse will start to obsessively think about alcohol or possibly other unhealthy ways of changing the way that they feel. They are likely to revert back to dysfunctional behaviours and pull away from anything and anyone associated with their alcohol recovery.

They are likely to experience euphoric recall around their drinking days and start to feel resentful towards recovery. They may well blame others for the way that they feel. As drinking thoughts become more frequent, they start to fantasise about drinking. They may be planning a relapse and become secretive and distant. Their behaviour is likely to resemble their behaviour whilst in active addiction – all that is missing is the actual alcohol.

Alcoholic drinks arranged in the shape of a person's head, displaying mental relapse.

Intervention at this point becomes critical if an alcoholic relapse is to be avoided.

Stage 3 of Alcoholic Relapse:

Physical Relapse

The final stage of alcoholic relapse is where the individual in recovery breaks their abstinence around alcohol. Once they start to drink again they find it very difficult to stop. Often they will find that their drinking is worse than ever before as they struggle to find the courage to admit they are drinking.

Alcoholic relapse is life-threatening, even though they may appear to be able to control their drinking for a while – inevitably the alcohol consumes them once again. Professional intervention and treatment are often required once a physical relapse has happened.

The Dangers of Alcoholic Relapse

  • Alcoholic relapse carries many dangers, the main one being that the individual will feel too ashamed to admit that they have fallen off the wagon to seek help. This will lead to secretive drinking and unhealthy behaviours.
  • Alcoholism only ever gets progressively worse over any given period of time, never better. It has been said many times, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. An alcoholic brain quickly recalls what alcohol provides in terms of ease, comfort and confidence and forgets the negative consequences of previous drinking bouts.
  • An individual who has previously had an active recovery life will feel isolated, detached, anxious and quickly become very depressed. This can cause them to be more reckless with their drinking and take bigger risks.
  • A period of abstinence from alcohol also means that the body’s tolerance levels will have dropped dramatically. There is an enhanced risk of alcohol poisoning and damage to the body’s vital organs. Any healing that has taken place physically, mentally and emotionally is very quickly undone.
  • Trust that has been rebuilt with family, friends and loved ones are also destroyed once more.

There is nothing glamorous about alcoholic relapsing. In our experience, it is extremely distressing to watch and if help is not sought can result in death.

How Common Is Alcoholic Relapse?

There is very little statistical information in the UK regarding the rates of alcoholic relapse. This is because individuals can find recovery for years before suffering from relapse, and not all that suffer relapse re-enter treatment services. There are also those that are able to stop alcohol without professional treatment and so cannot be tracked.

The most thorough investigation into understanding alcoholics and addicts in recovery was conducted by the Chestnut Health Systems, Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois, USA, who conducted an 8-year study of nearly 1200 addicts and alcoholics.

The study was able to successfully follow over 94% of participants. Their findings showed that extended abstinence from alcohol and drugs increased the chances of permanent abstinence.

The researchers, who published their findings in the National Center for Biotechnology in 2007, found that:

  • Only about a third of people who are abstinent less than 1 year will remain abstinent.
  • For those who achieve 1 year of sobriety, less than 50 % will relapse.
  • For those that achieve 5 years of sobriety, their chance of relapse is less than 15%
  • Relapse rates are higher amongst those that do not undergo professional treatment and in those that suffer from dual diagnosis.

In a separate study, published in 2006 in the Addiction journal for the US, it was found that 62 percent of individuals treated for alcoholism through alcohol rehab or Alcoholics Anonymous maintained recovery after three years. This was reduced to around 43 percent of individuals who did not undergo any form of alcohol treatment.

Alcoholic relapse is something that can be avoided with the correct treatment and support. Permanent recovery from alcoholism is possible but it does take commitment and hard work. Sometimes alcoholic relapse happens because the individual has not accessed a treatment programme that works for them. For an individual to remain in alcohol recovery, their recovery has to be enjoyable.

For an individual that struggles to maintain abstinence from alcohol, rehab treatment is recommended. Repeated relapses are indicative of unresolved trauma, deep-rooted issues or undiagnosed mental health illness.

The Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholic Relapse

Are you worried that a loved one or family member has relapsed on alcohol? If so, there are certain signs and symptoms that are hard to ignore:

  • You smell alcohol on their breath
  • They have become secretive and distant
  • They are uncontactable for hours at a time
  • You receive text messages that are uncharacteristic from them
  • They sound slurred when talking on the phone
  • They have lost interest in family, friends and things they normally enjoy
  • There is a substantial change in their grooming, eating and sleeping habits
  • They have withdrawn from recovery meetings and friends
  • They appear angry or over emotional
  • They have stopped engaging in recovery practices and become dismissive of recovery
  • They appear anxious and depressed
  • You find evidence that they have purchased alcohol

Some of these signs and symptoms will become apparent before an actual physical relapse on alcohol. If you have any concerns for your loved ones well being it is important to talk to them about it and support them in seeking alcohol help or treatment.

What to Do If You Have Relapsed on Alcohol

The word 'recovery' pinned on a bulletin board.

If you have relapsed on alcohol after a period of sobriety, you may well be wondering how did I end up here again? Alcoholism isn’t curable but it is treatable and relapse can be prevented by applying a recovery programme that works for you.

Perhaps you are feeling scared and worried about what people will think if you own up to your relapse. Our experience is that asking for help breaks the secrecy and denial. We appreciate that this is difficult, but in light of the fact that alcohol has the power to destroy an alcoholic, asking for help is strongly advised.

If you feel unable to talk to your family or friends as you fear being judged, then perhaps a counsellor or GP can help. We also offer inpatient alcohol detox and rehabilitation and will respect your right for confidentiality. However, we do recommend telling those that you love as they probably already suspect your relapse. Support is invaluable following on from rehab treatment.

If you cannot afford private alcohol treatment we suggest you contact Alcoholics Anonymous or your local drug and alcohol team, who will be able to help you without any judgement.

We urge you not to give yourself a hard time or assume that others will feel let down. Relapses unfortunately happen, pinpointing why you relapsed can be helpful in avoiding future relapses. The most important thing is that you seek help and tell someone of your struggles.

Many individuals that relapse and find recovery again learn a valuable lesson from their relapse. This can make their recovery stronger than ever before.

Please do contact us to find out more information about our private alcohol detox and rehab programme costs. We can facilitate an urgent admission and ensure that you receive a bespoke treatment planned aimed at healing the root causes of your alcoholism.


Addiction Journal

National Center for Biotechnology Information

Psychology Today