In 2016, around 21 million Americans struggled with addiction involving drugs and/or alcohol, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).1 Addiction is considered a chronic condition, and experiencing a relapse is often a part of long-term management of that condition. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that addiction has relapse rates of in the range of 40-60 percent, which is similar to relapse rates associated with other chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure and asthma.2
Relapse is a return to drug and/or alcohol use after a period of abstinence.3 There are several things that a person can do to minimize episodes of relapse, including making a plan for recovery. Part of strategizing for recovery can be writing a relapse prevention plan and taking steps to help yourself stick to it. While the relapse prevention plan may not always be written down (e.g., a verbal agreement), writing it down can have several benefits.
A relapse prevention plan that is written down can serve as a handy and concrete physical guide that can be referenced as needed. This plan is often discussed and ironed out during counseling and therapy sessions as part of a complete addiction treatment program; however, it can be created in any setting at any time.
A plan can serve as a blueprint to fall back on in times of stress, reminding you of your options in that moment and of your goals for moving forward. It can keep you accountable and focused on recovery. Relapse prevention plans are highly personal, tailored to your own specific circumstances, triggers, and needs.
Steps for Writing a Plan
A relapse prevention plan will feature a concrete course of action, outlining coping mechanisms and ideas for managing cravings and triggers in times of stress.4 The plan can be amended and added to as time goes on and needs change. The more detailed your plan is, the more likely it is to be helpful during a variety of situations and events.
A good plan might include:
- Specific triggers.
- Tools and methods for coping with stress and triggers.
- Healthy lifestyle strategies and self-improvement ideas.
- A maintenance plan for daily life.
- Communication ideas for family and loved ones.
- Accountability methods.
A relapse prevention plan will feature a concrete course of action, outlining coping mechanisms and ideas for managing cravings and triggers in times of stress. The plan can be amended and added to as time goes on and needs change. The more detailed your plan is, the more likely it is to be helpful during a variety of situations and events.
The following is a helpful step-by-step guide to follow when writing a relapse prevention plan:
- 1—Identify your personal goals in recovery and motivations for positive changes.
A relapse prevention plan is individual, and it will not be the same for everyone. It is important for you to think about what you want out of recovery and what your own personal goals for the future are.
What changes are you willing to make, and what are your motivations for making them? For instance, things like keeping a job, making amends and improving relationships with loved ones, consistently fulfilling family obligations, becoming physically healthier, or enhancing self-esteem can all be great goals to strive for in recovery and things to include in your plan.
- 2—Make a plan to manage cravings and triggers by naming specific challenges and methods for overcoming them.
A trigger is something that can cause stress and potentially induce cravings to drink or use drugs. Each person will have their own specific triggers. They may be caused by certain events, places, people, or circumstances. For instance, you may frequent certain places where you always drink beer with your buddies, and these people and/or places may need to be avoided, at least for a while. Stress is a natural part of life, and it is important to have coping mechanisms and tools in place for managing it in a healthy manner.
What specific things will be the biggest challenge for you personally, and what can you do to manage them? Come up with relaxation techniques, stress-management ideas, and coping strategies and include these in your plan as a reference for you to look back at.
- 3—Find ways to improve self-care and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
It can be very beneficial to set up a daily ritual for maintaining physical health, such as a structured sleep schedule, plan for balanced meals, and a fitness regime. Getting enough sleep and eating healthy can aid in setting up a strong foundation to build from. Being physically healthy can help you to have a clearer mind and feel less stressed as well as increase self-confidence.
Finding hobbies that keep you busy and occupy the mind can be a great relapse prevention tool as well. Take up a creative outlet like dance or painting, attend a yoga class, and find ways to help yourself relax. Decide how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally, and make plans to schedule this practice into your daily life.
- 4—Prepare communication tools and set up a support system.
The people around you can be great resources in recovery. Surround yourself with people who support your goals.
Peer support and 12-Step groups can be highly beneficial during recovery to aid in relapse prevention. The Journal of Addictive Disorders indicates that people actively participating in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—a mutual support, 12-Step program—were more likely to remain abstinent over those who did not.5
It can be helpful to have people you can talk to when you need to. Think about ways to communicate effectively and ask for help when you need it. Keep numbers for counselors, mentors, friends, and family nearby, and don’t hesitate to talk it out.
- 5—Devise strategies to keep yourself accountable to the plan.
Come up with methods and ways to help yourself be successful – things like setting small attainable goals and rewarding yourself for positive progress. Make a list of things you are thankful for and some of your reasons for remaining sober. Keep this as part of your relapse prevention plan to remind yourself what you are working for and to keep yourself motivated.
In the same respect, consider a list of consequences as well. Write down what may happen if a relapse does occur. Will you lose your job, your house, or your family? Could you go to jail? A list of the potential consequences of addiction can serve as a reminder of why sobriety is the better option.
Sample Template for a Relapse Prevention Plan
A relapse prevention plan can serve as a way to improve all aspects of life and hold yourself accountable. Refer back to the plan often to remind yourself why you are doing this and how to keep it up. The plan may change with time and as you identify new or different areas of your life that you may wish to focus on.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes that being aware and taking note of early warning signs of stress can be extremely helpful in working to prevent relapse.6 In addition, having a strong “action plan” in writing can be a great resource. The action plan should offer guidance and be a tool for accomplishing and holding fast to your goals in recovery.
Below is a sample of a relapse prevention plan that can serve as a guideline when writing your own.
Relapse Prevention Plan
Personal goals for self-improvement:
- I want to be more physically fit and will work to take better care of my body.
- I wish to regain my position at my job and will work toward being a better employee and more financially stable.
- I will attend anger management classes to work on staying calm and controlling my emotions and temper.
- I want to make amends with friends and family members who have suffered as a result of my addiction and seek to improve these relationships.
Triggers and potential challenges:
- Going to the bar after work
- Hanging out with Joe and Bob who are still drinking heavily on a regular basis
- Financial difficulties and work-related stress
- Parties and social activities where there will be alcohol
- Troubles with my partner and strife in my home life
Methods for coping with stress and minimizing triggers:
- I will use relaxation and mindfulness meditation techniques when I am feeling stressed.
- After work, I will go straight home and avoid the bar as well as friends who do not support my sobriety.
- I will attend 12-Step meetings at least two or three times a week.
- I will take non-alcoholic beverages to parties and social gatherings.
- Every day, I will spend at least 20 minutes on self-reflection and keeping a journal.
- I will do something fun for myself at least once a day.
- If I get into trouble, I will call a friend, mentor, family member, or support person.
Daily life and self-care plans:
- I will eat healthy and balanced meals and be sure to drink enough water.
- I will strive to get at least eight hours of solid sleep each night.
- I will join a gym and plan to exercise three times per week.
- I will go for a walk each day.
- Emotionally, I will work toward being more aware of my own feelings and needs and take time to “check” myself throughout the day.
My support system:
- Peer counselor/mentor
- Members of a 12-Step group
- Family members
- Sober friends
- Mental, medical, and/or substance abuse treatment providers
Consequences, gratitude, and accountability actions:
- I am thankful for my family, and I wish to be a good partner and parent.
- My job and financial stability depend on me remaining sober and in control.
- I may lose my job and be unable to live at home if I am not sober.
- My physical health is directly related to my sobriety. If I drink, I will get sick and be unable to take care of myself and others.
- I understand that my recovery plan is a promise to myself and my loved ones to remain sober and to be the healthiest version of myself.
- Ahrnsbrak R, Bose J, Hedden S, Lipari R, Park-Lee E. (2016.) Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- Melemis SM. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale J Biol Med. 2015;88(3):325-332.
- Hendershot CS, Witkiewitz K, George WH, Marlatt GA. Relapse prevention for addictive behaviors. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2011;6:17.
- Kaskutas LA. Alcoholics anonymous effectiveness: faith meets science. J Addict Dis. 2009;28(2):145-157.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress.
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