What Is An Effective Relapse Prevention Plan?

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Arzt | Last Edited : February 06, 2021 | 4 Sources

It Gives You A Relapse Prevention Outline
It Identifies Relapse Prevention Strategies

Before discussing  a relapse prevention plan, we need to define what an alcohol relapse is:

· An alcohol relapse is when an alcoholic (or any addict for that matter) who stopped drinking at some point in the past, goes back to drinking. This might be just one drink or many drinks.

· A relapse can last an hour, a day, a month or many years. There are several factors that could contribute to the length of a relapse.

· Relapse prevention is the process of avoiding going back to drinking using a relapse prevention plan, and is ongoing for the recovering alcoholic.

· A Relapse Prevention Plan is a coherent, systematic plan, the purpose of which is to outline relapse prevention strategies tailored for each alcoholic and their unique circumstances. The purpose of a relapse prevention plan is to serve as a specific guide map of actions you can take when struggling to avoid picking up your first alcoholic drink.

Each relapse prevention is unique. Sometimes, it takes some trial-and-error to determine which plan works best for you.

The Difference Between an Alcohol Treatment Program and Relapse Prevention

It is important to keep in mind that an inpatient alcohol treatment program is one thing and a relapse prevention plan is another.

  • An inpatient alcohol treatment program is usually around four to six weeks in length, involves detoxing from alcohol, therapy sessions, and group work and lays the foundations for a life without alcohol.
  • While in an alcohol treatment program, your addiction counselors should work with you to help create a specific relapse prevention plan for you. There is likely a general format that they use, however it will be tailored to some of the specific triggers and challenges in your life.
  •  A relapse prevention plan and the relapse prevention outline it provides, is essential in maintaining the good work you started at the treatment center.

A comprehensive relapse prevention outline consists of preventive measures that focus on the emotional, mental and physical concerns of the recovering alcoholic. For example, avoiding people, places and things that are known to trigger you. 

For a comprehensive look at the emotional causes of relapse in alcoholics and how to deal with them, read alcohol relapse triggers.

 Relapse Prevention Plan
Critical To Recovery

Relapse prevention is actually the most critical aspect of the treatment program. All the good work undertaken to stop drinking, detoxing from alcohol etc. will be rendered ineffectual if the patient goes into relapse. 

Life happens, and some challenges cannot be planned for. Having a through relapse prevention plan should help you cope with the curve balls that will, undoubtedly, be thrown at you. On top of this, if the relapse is particularly severe, the individual may have to go back into a treatment program.

Alcoholics go back to drinking because of relapse triggers. There are two categories of triggers; internal and external.

  • Internal triggers refer to things within us such as an inability to cope with emotions and/or stress. 
  • External triggers are things that are outside of us such as people, places and things.

Internal triggers tend to be easier to control because we cannot always control the external triggers that we are exposed to. An alcoholic can make all the right choices to avoid being in a difficult situation, however some things are out of our hands and just happen. Whereas with internal triggers, we can learn which we struggle with, and work to find healthier coping skills.

There are two main triggers that cause alcoholics to return to drinking:

1. They don’t have the appropriate support mechanisms. That is a plan for sober living and/or aftercare, or a lack of sober support.

2. They don’t live in an appropriate environment that is conducive to a sober and alcohol-free lifestyle. For example, living in a house or apartment with another alcoholic or someone that drinks regularly.

Thus, it is essential that these two critical aspects of recovery are addressed early so that alcoholics have a decent chance of maintaining sobriety. If you are in an alcohol treatment program, there should be social workers or other staff members who are able to address these concerns with you as the options for housing can become daunting and overwhelming easily if it is not something that you have looked into before.

5 Relapse Prevention Strategies

Relapse prevention needs to encompass the following areas:

· Motivational Variables – While alcoholism medications can help former alcoholics maintain their sobriety and stay away from alcohol, the need for a long-term solution will largely hinge on mechanisms that will boost the confidence and motivation of the patient in maintaining an alcohol-free lifestyle.

Motivations can be internal and external.

  • Internal motivations would be tied to themselves, such as wanting to have a healthier lifestyle. 
  • External motivations would be reinforced from others. An example of an external motivation could be improved relationships with parents, siblings, spouse and children. 

· Management of Uncontrollable Cravings – Negative thoughts and uncontrollable cravings are the major challenges of a recovering alcoholic. This key element of the relapse prevention plan is skill-centered and will entirely depend on how the patient is able to take control of his or her daily routine amid all the pressures and temptations.

The good thing about the situation is that the intensity and degree of negative thoughts and cravings will dissipate over time and, with positive reinforcement, can eventually be rendered ineffectual.

· Coping Mechanisms – Relapse prevention is anchored on the coping skills of the former alcoholics. These refer to the skill set that will include communication skills, interpersonal skills and essential social skills. For many, alcohol was the main coping skill used. This could be used when a person is angry, sad, mad, glad, happy, joyful, content and all other emotions.

While unhealthy, alcohol is an effective coping skill; it numbs you from whatever emotions is making you uncomfortable. The consequence to this is learning that in recovery, coping skills do not numb you as alcohol. Rather, they help provide you with enough relief where the emotion is manageable for you to sit with and process.

· Pinpointing, Acknowledging and Processing Emotions – Experts stress the need to focus on places, things and people that can trigger relapse and make full recovery difficult. However, you have to remember that external variables are not really the main concerns of a comprehensive relapse prevention plan.

Our actions or responses to these external stimuli are the extension of our emotions, and we need to get a good handle of the latter in order to stay sober. It is possible, through time and hard work, to learn to respond differently to things out of our control. This can help build a person’s confidence in their ability to cope with the multitude of challenges that life throws at them.

· Boosting Self-Confidence and Enhancing Positive Self-Image–Positive mirroring and reinforcement of self-confidence are essential tools for former alcoholics that will help them stay sober. The absence of these essential elements will definitely undercut the ability of a person to fend off the temptation and craving for alcohol.

Self-care practices can tie into this as well. Making time for yourself, to appreciate yourself, can help improve your relationship with yourself. One thing to note is that we talk to ourselves more than anyone else does. Is your self-talk kind? Or are you critical of yourself?

If we say negative things to ourselves day after day, we are more likely to believe them. Just the opposite, if we start telling ourselves more positive things each day, we can improve the way we feel about ourselves.

relapse-prevention-planPhoto by Kat Jayne

YOUR Relapse Prevention Plan

If you don't have any relapse prevention strategies because you didn't attend a treatment center, that’s okay. Just tale the time and make a relapse prevention plan for yourself.

Below you will find 9 areas that you should consider when planning your alcohol relapse prevention. Copy and paste these questions and then print them out.

Answer the questions. Your answers will be your relapse prevention plan. They will give you a good idea as to what needs to be done to avoid relapsing.

Refer to your plan every day, thereby ensuring you will remain focused on your alcohol relapse prevention outline.

1. Outline the plans you have for:

· Living arrangements

· Work/Study

2. What support will you have in the following areas?

· Family

· Work

· Friends/colleagues

· Counseling/relapse prevention therapy

3. If you are attending a support group/group therapy how many sessions do you plan to attend each week?

· If you are going to AA, do you have a sponsor? If not, when do you plan to get one?

4. Now that you have given up drinking, what will your social life consist of?

5. List three examples of lifestyle changes you will have to make to facilitate your recovery from alcohol?

6. What can you do to improve your relationships with your family?

7. List 3-5 short term realistic goals.

8. List 3 situations that might put your recovery in jeopardy.

9. List 3 steps that you could take to help you cope with the above situations.

"If you're unsure whether alcohol may be a problem, speak with one of our supportive counselors. With many having first-hand experience they understand the struggle. The free chat is confidential & they are available 24/7."

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


Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery provided by the US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/.

Relapse prevention provided by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5844157/

Visit learn-about-alcoholism.com to learn more.

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