Alcohol Relapse: Triggers, Causes, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : November 16, 
| 4 Sources

Alcohol relapse is going back to drinking after a period of abstinence, usually accompanied by the return of alcohol dependence symptoms.

Relapse prevention is the reason a lot of people seek treatment. This page is for those who are abstaining from alcohol and want to learn how to avoid an alcohol relapse. Relapse prevention is a kind of treatment that aims to teach alcohol dependent persons coping abilities to help them prevent relapsing back to using alcohol.

When a recovering alcoholic has a relapse it can seem like the end of the world. All the hard work that went into getting off alcohol and then living a clean and sober life gone to waste.... or has it?

There are those (particularly those in Alcoholics Anonymous), who believe that relapse is an essential part of recovering from alcoholism. We need an alcohol relapse in order to remind us of how bad it was when we were actively drinking. There well may be some truth to this.

An alcohol relapse can indeed shake us out of our apathy when life seems to be getting easy. When things are going well we tend to forget that it can quite easily get very, very difficult.

Just got sober, want to stay that way? A relapse prevention plan is a must.

However, this is to ignore those who relapse and never quit drinking again, eventually dieing from the condition. Their relapse certainly was not a part of their recovery, it was the end of it. A relapse can go on for years and cause untold damage. Why risk it?

I am of the opinion that avoiding relapse is the best course of action. Yes if you do relapse then don't beat yourself up about it, but it would be far better not to relapse at all.

One way of minimizing your risk of alcohol relapse is to identify relapse triggers. Relapse triggers are different for each individual, but generally they are feelings, emotions, people and events that are potential reasons for relapse.

The Most Common Reasons For Relapse

Alcohol relapse can be triggered by any number of things. Below I have listed the most common thought processes that can lead to a return to drinking.

Keep in mind that just because you have these thoughts does not mean you are destined to drink. What they do mean, however, is that you are getting negative, an alcoholic knows how to make these bad feelings disappear, at least momentarily, ......have a drink.

Being aware of the reasons for alcohol relapse is half the battle, awareness leads to positive action.

  • I can't forgive or forget. Resentments are the number one cause of relapsing. Carrying around and mulling over how people have slighted you is, and not just for the alcoholic, unhealthy. A resentment not dealt with is a drink down the road.
  • I'm tired and unwell.Stress increases the risk of an alcohol relapse. Exhaustion and ill-health are major relapse triggers. In the past you might have had a drink to make yourself feel better. To avoid this, make sure you get at least 8 hours sleep a night, don't overdo things and eat healthily.
  • What's wrong with a little lie? Once we start telling lies we are on a slippery slope. One lie leads to another and then we lie to ourselves, lies lead to guilt, guilt leads to a drink.
  • How long? Impatience is a factor. Staying away from drink and feeling better about a sober life takes time, sometimes a lot of time. Patience is the key. The same goes for other people, you can't change how other people work. Impatience leads to frustration, frustration leads to...I don't need to spell it out.
  • Stop disagreeing with me. Life would be incredibly dull if we all had the same opinions and agreed on everything. It is impossible to get people to have the same opinions as you, agree to disagree, accept others and move on
  • The world is against me. It may seem like it sometimes, but no, the world does not have it in for you. Life is not fair and you can't have everything you want. Children can be excused for thinking they are owed a living, adults, on the other hand, need to learn to cope with the curve balls life throws at them.
  • Despair. We all go through periods of despair, keeping it to ourselves is the worst thing we can do, getting it out in the open is half the battle and will, generally, ease the depression.
  • Nothing ever goes my way. As with 'the world is against me', this is the classic attitude of a child. Generalizing about negative events and focusing on the negative is self-destructive. Of course, things go your way, be realistic and don't make generalizations.
  • Poor me syndrome. Self-pity, poor me why can I never drink again, why is it me who has to be drink dependent. Instead of focusing on the bad, be grateful for what you have got.
  • I've got it made. This is common among recovering alcoholics who have been sober for some time and get cocky. Thinking you can go back to drinking because you no longer have cravings and life is hunky-dory is not good. A few people can go back and drink moderately, but they are in the minority. Do you want to take the chance?
  • I don't even think about drinking As above, but this is a paradox. Are you not thinking about drinking if you have such thoughts?
  • Why can't they be like me? The urge to change everybody and everything around you. If only she didn't do this, if only I had a better job, if only we didn't have those dogs, and so on. You can't change others, only yourself.
  • It won't do any harm. You've given up alcohol what's the problem with a few pills, a spliff. Alcoholics become alcoholics because they replace negative feelings/emotions with the momentary buzz of alcohol. Any other psychoactive substance will provide the same result. Also, when you are high from something it is much harder to resist a drink. Cross-addiction is a real danger
  • I Want more. We all get greedy and want what we don't have. Waiting for things to come our way can be hard. Live in the present and those things you need will come your way.
  • I have so many problems. Don't we all. Life is a collection of problems, that's what makes it such a challenge and gives us the satisfaction when we overcome the challenges.
  • It won't happen to me. Yes it will, if you tempt fate.
  • I am God. We all think we are all-powerful at some stage. Everything seems to be going our way and then BANG, we get complacent and it all falls apart. You are not omnipotent, no more so than the next person.
  • Wasn't I bad. Guilt and dwelling upon it will lead you back to the bottle. Yes you have done bad things, hurt other people but we, and they, need to move on. If those you have hurt cannot move on then that is their problem, you can't do anything about it but show you are sorry.

Dry Drunk Syndrome is a sign of impending relapse. Learn what to look out for by reading Dry Drunk Syndrome.

Avoiding Alcohol Relapse

A surefire way to avoiding relapse is to be able to recognize in yourself, the alcohol relapse triggers outlined above. When such thoughts/emotions arise it is time to unburden yourself:

  • If you go to Alcoholics Anonymous or another support group, talk about it.
  • If you have a therapist/counselor talk about it.
  • If you can't talk face-to-face with someone, get online and chat about it.

Whatever you do, don't bottle it up. Negative thoughts beget negative thoughts; they become amplified until the noise becomes too much. Alcoholics drown out the noise by drinking.

I generally find 'old Wisdom' sayings annoying, probably because they are so true. "A problem shared, is a problem halved' is one such saying, and is so true when it comes to recovery and avoiding alcohol relapse.

Talk about it and avoid a return to active alcoholism.

If you notice the signs of alcohol relapse and know the symptoms and how to prevent a relapse, you can catch yourself in time. Help is available. Contact a dedicated treatment provider today to know more about alcoholic relapse and alcoholism treatment options.

Alcohol Relapse

Terence Gorski and Merlene Miller have written the definitive guide to avoiding relapse. By studying countless cases of relapse, they have been able to identify the triggers, both emotional and situational, that cause recovering addicts to return to drinking. Staying Sober: A Guide for Relapse Prevention is an invaluable resource for all those who struggle to stay sober.

If you found this page helpful, then the following may be of interest to you:

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

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