How Stress Can Lead to Relapse

How Stress Can Lead to Relapse

The entire process of addiction treatment is fraught with challenges.  Considering all of the hurdles, it sometimes seems incredible that anyone ever recovers at all.  When someone has achieved sobriety, we often breathe a sigh of relief, finally again recognizing the person we knew and loved, who was hidden behind the veneer of addiction.  Once found, it is critical to keep them there.  The perennial leader of triggers that can lead one to relapse is stress, which can come at you from any side and take on many forms.  Therefore, stress management must be an essential component of all treatment and aftercare programs.

Stress is an inevitable fact of life.  Some people deal with it better than others.  We are all familiar with the stereotype of a business person with a bottle of something tucked away in the office desk, to relieve tension after a long day.  Many of us have resorted to even harder drugs for the same reason.  For someone with addictive tendencies, that’s just the beginning of a losing proposition.

Interestingly enough, stress involves the release of brain chemicals, in a similar fashion to addiction, that were historically helpful for our very survival.  It is the basic element behind our ‘flight or fight’ response, as well as an instinct that kept our forefathers following the herds as they hunted them down for sustenance.  While it can still have some beneficial aspects, such as assisting us in an adrenaline filled presentation or speaking engagement, it is often something that leaves us feeling ill at ease.  No one wants to feel ill at ease.  This is particularly true for addicts, whose brains have been re-wired with a heightened sensitivity toward stress, as a result of their addiction.

Which brings us back full circle as to why we can all certainly understand why stress is the number one trigger for relapse.  So, the big question really is then, what can we do about it?

Well, to begin with, treatment obviously needs to be a lot more than just about the addiction and getting clean.  Lifestyle balance is a vital component of any recovery.  Treatment centers and their employees need to embrace the philosophy  of exploring the entirety of the patient and his/her life.  Patients must not only be encouraged to open up in a safe environment, but must also be gently persuaded to confront what makes them uncomfortable.  Moreover, no post-release treatment plan is complete without strategies on how to best combat stressful events as they arise, tailor-made for the unique conditions relating to each individual patient.  Addicted patients must also be made aware that they need to be proactive in seeking this type of help, and educated on how to deal with stress in a healthy and productive manner.  Aftercare programs then need to pick up where treatment leaves off, with exercises, role play and discussions of scenarios in which patients can test their resilience in consequence free situations.  This way, they can explore what the potential consequences may have been had they acted and see for themselves the true benefit of the ongoing treatment.  Each patient must also be involved in support groups including both family and former addicts.  Those of us in recovery, periodically, need something close to unconditional support, where we will not be judged, so long as we are committed to maintaining or re-engaging in our recovery.  We all have moments of weakness and make mistakes, the choices we make in those circumstances are what  make all the difference.

It’s difficult enough getting someone to confront the demons of their addictions and explore recovery.  Getting them to take treatment seriously and achieve sobriety, even more so.  Once we’ve gotten them on the road to recovery, we must do all we can to help them stay there.  There’s no possible way to eliminate stress, regardless of the amount of planning and foresight, that’s just not realistic.  However, with proper planning, we can minimize the impact of any bump in that road, to help ensure that the recovering addict remains on the right track.


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