Alcohol Relapse Rates & Abstinence Statistics

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One of the scariest aspects of recovery is the prospect of relapse. Unfortunately, making a temporary error in judgment is always possible regardless of how committed you are to your sobriety or how long you’ve been abstinent. Although not inevitable, relapse is considered a component of the recovery process that many people will experience at some point. In fact, alcohol use disorder, which encompasses misuse, dependence, and addiction, is commonly referred to as a “chronic and relapsing disease“—just like diabetes or high blood pressure. (1)

Many people who’ve relapsed experience guilt, shame, and regret soon after. They may feel like surrendering rather than facing the possibility of starting over. While these feelings are normal, they are not particularly healthy or useful when you consider they are more likely to keep you down than move you forward. The best approach to relapse is to treat it as a learning experience, examine the circumstances that led up to it and identify ways to prevent it from happening again.

If you are struggling to control your drinking, fear you will relapse, or have already relapsed after a period of abstinence, we encourage you to reach out to Guardian Recovery. We will put you in touch with an experienced Treatment Advisor who will provide you with a free assessment and no-obligation insurance benefits check. Contact us today if you are ready to start your recovery journey!

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What Percentage of Alcoholics Relapse or Recover (Remain Abstinent)?

An alcohol relapse occurs when a person in recovery recommences drinking. Alcohol is highly addictive both physically and psychologically, and achieving chemical independence doesn’t mean some level of emotional dependency won’t persist, even with treatment. So even after your brain and body have long been free of alcohol’s influence, certain feelings, thoughts, people, places, and events can trigger an urge to drink.  

According to recent research (2021), “on average, two-thirds of individuals treated for alcohol use disorder (AUD) relapse within six months.” (2) Other findings suggest that of the one-third of people with AUD who attempt to quit drinking each year, approximately one-quarter are successful in reducing their consumption a year later. (3)

Older alcohol relapse statistics vary widely. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), some studies have estimated the rate between 40-60%, which is commonly referenced as an average of about one-half. (4) In 2005, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reported that “more than one-third (35.9 percent) of U.S. adults with alcohol dependence (alcoholism) that began more than one year ago are now in full recovery.” (5)

Although these statistics might sound disheartening, the relapse rate for those with alcohol use disorders is not significantly different from that of other chronic illnesses, such as asthma and hypertension (50%-70%). (6) Fortunately, relapse rates do decline significantly after a person has been in recovery for five years. (7)

What Are the Three Stages of a Relapse?

If you returned to drinking in a one-time instance or several episodes, these might be considered slips or lapses. The term relapse is often applied to those who have returned to pre-recovery drinking levels, but not always. For some, a slip is treated as a relapse, and they might feel they need to seek help immediately. For others, a slip is not of much concern. But should it be? That’s a question most people in recovery will have to answer for themselves sooner or later.

There are also three stages of relapse. (8) However, taking steps to reduce the risk of a full relapse during any point in recovery has the potential to prevent a worst-case scenario from occurring.

Emotional Relapse

During an emotional relapse, the person is not actively thinking about drinking. However, they are experiencing negative or unhealthy thoughts and feelings that could further deteriorate and impact emotional stability.

Signs of Emotional Relapse Include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Anger.
  • Mood swings.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Not seeking help for emotional issues.
  • Not going to support group meetings.
  • Missing visits with therapists or counselors.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Poor eating habits.

Mental Relapse

During a mental relapse, the person has some urge or desire to drink, but a part of them is still committed to abstinence. But casual ideations early on can progress into active thoughts of relapse later if they aren’t appropriately addressed.

Signs of Mental Relapse Include:

  • Romanticizing or daydreaming about alcohol.
  • Thinking about people, places, and things triggers thoughts about drinking.
  • Deception and secretiveness.
  • Associating with old friends who still drink.
  • Considering the possibility or planning of a relapse.
  • Finding it more challenging to make the right decisions regarding recovery status.

Physical Relapse

In a physical relapse, the person in recovery starts actively drinking alcohol again, often resuming previous patterns of alcohol misuse.

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How Can You Prevent Alcohol Relapse?

Preventing a physical relapse requires a person to recognize when they are regressing emotionally and may be in imminent danger. This realization can lead to the use of various strategies to help prevent relapse, including the following:

Take an Emotional Inventory

Be aware of negative mental states such as anxiety and depression. Then, find ways to address them through relaxation, hobbies, individual therapy, counseling, etc. Your mental health is directly tied to your ability to make healthy decisions and not resort to self-medication.

Examine Diet, Sleeping Habits, & Self-Care Practices

Negative mental states can be caused by or contribute to an unhealthy diet, erratic sleeping patterns, and poor personal hygiene and self-care. If you are beginning to think about relapse, there’s a good chance one of more personal care routines is being neglected. Identify where the deficits are and work on improving them.

Don’t Slip Back Into the Pre-Recovery Mindset

Individuals who drink or use drugs have gotten to the point of dependence or addiction because they cannot control their habits. Unfortunately, this is still true the second time around. If you couldn’t have just one drink before recovery, you’re probably not going to be able to do it now, either.

Consider the Consequences

When you went into recovery, you were experiencing adverse effects of your drinking. These might have been social, financial, legal, etc., and you might still be dealing the long-term fallout. Returning to old drinking habits will inevitably lead to more unwanted repercussions, which may be even worse this time.

Talk to Someone Who Understands

Tell a friend, sober loved one, or sponsor you have been thinking about drinking. Talking about your feelings may help you put them in perspective, and others might offer unique advice for preventing relapse you hadn’t considered.

Use Distraction Techniques

If you are experiencing a craving, it will probably only last for about 30 minutes. This is a relatively short time, and occupying yourself temporarily with an activity can serve as a distraction while you wait out the urges you’re having.

Most of all, you need to remember that recovery happens one day at a time. When you feel motivated enough not to use, you can set goals to stay sober for another week or month. If you’re currently suffering, you can set a goal that you won’t drink today or even just for the next 30 minutes or an hour if that’s what it takes.

Dealing With Relapse

If you relapse, you must first decide if you need to go back to rehab and get professional treatment. If it was an isolated event, and you’re dedicated to examining and altering your recovery plan, you may not require a stay in an inpatient treatment program. Intensive outpatient treatment programs can be beneficial if you don’t feel you need around-the-clock supervision. 

However, if you’ve retreated into a long pattern of alcohol misuse, you may want to consider undergoing intensive treatment in a safe and controlled residential environment. Although this might feel like you’re completely starting over, it might help you realize that you just needed reinforcement and had the tools you needed all along. While only you can make the final decision for treatment, remember it can only be helpful and never hurts to try.

Regardless of the level of care you determine is best for you, your treatment should emphasize the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT teaches individuals struggling with addiction how to alter their behavioral responses and replace their dysfunctional ways of coping. (9) Following treatment, you can continue using these strategies to promote a low-stress life and deal with depression, anger, and anxiety more constructively.

Considerations for aftercare include sober living homes, where accountability can help during those first few vulnerable months following treatment. An aftercare plan for ongoing therapy or counseling after discharge would also be beneficial to promote accountability and prevent relapse.

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Getting Professional Help for Alcohol Addiction & Relapse

If you’ve been unable to control your alcohol use or have already completed formal treatment and are concerned you might be susceptible to relapse, professional help is available. Guardian Recovery offers comprehensive, research-based programs for those struggling with alcoholism and other substance use disorders. Our treatment plans feature customized therapies and activities designed to address each individual’s unique recovery needs and goals.

One or even several setbacks do not have to mean you have failed. Lasting recovery is possible. If you are ready to face your addiction again, fully prepared to battle relapse, contact us today to learn about our individualized programs and multi-levels of care.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S014067360960009X

(2)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8476113/

(3)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7960734/

(4)https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

(5)https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/2001-2002-survey-finds-many-recover-alcoholism-researchers-identify-factors-associated-abstinent-and

(6)https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

(7) https://ncphp.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Relpase-declines-after-5-years.pdf

(8)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/

(9)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897895/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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