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How to Deal with Thoughts of Relapse

If you have been thinking about drinking or using drugs again, it does not necessarily mean you are on the verge of relapse. Sometimes these thoughts can just manifest themselves, soon vanishing as long as you do not obsess over them. If these thoughts persist though, it can be a sign that you have somehow gone off track in recovery.

The Cause of Relapse Thoughts

Thoughts of drinking or using drugs again can arise even for those who have been sober for decades. They reason for this is that part of the process of addiction is that the internal reward system in the brain has developed an association between this substance and reward. Once this type of association has been created, it never fully goes away. It means that a trigger (for example, walking past your favourite bar) in the environment can cause the thought of relapse to arise.

The Dangers of Relapse Thoughts

These thoughts about alcohol or drugs can be harmless so long as you do not entertain them. The real danger with these thoughts can be:

  • viewing them as a sign that you are doing something wrong, and you become full of guilt
  • leading to romancing the drink or drug
  • if your sobriety is weak, you may be at risk of responding to these thoughts
  • thoughts of drinking can sap your motivation.
Relapse Thoughts and Romancing the Drink or Drug

One of the biggest dangers with relapse thoughts is that they may cause you to start romancing the drink. This refers to a situation where you are spending time fantasising about the 'good days' of being a substance abuser. The problem is that once you have been sober for a few months, you can begin to forget how bad things once were. The mind is tricky like that - it has this amazing ability to glamorise the past.

How to Deal with Thoughts of Relapse

One of the most important things to understand is that the occasional drinking or drug using thought is normal. It is just a quirk of the brain that has been habituated to substance abuse. It is important to understand that everyone has to deal with unwelcome thoughts, but there is no reason to ever take action based on these thoughts. For example, if somebody cuts you off in traffic, you may briefly consider doing something violent to him or her, but this does not mean you will necessarily react on these thoughts.

An effective technique for learning how to better deal with these intrusive thoughts about relapse is mindfulness meditation. This technique teaches you to look at your thoughts more objectively. You begin to notice the impermanent nature of all thoughts - they are like clouds passing in the sky. By learning to look at your thoughts this way, you understand that they cannot really harm you so long as you do not obsess over them.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy is another useful technique for helping you get on top of your thoughts. You can pick up some tools for managing your thoughts, meaning that when cravings do arise, you will be ready to deal with them.

If you are having persistent thoughts of relapse, it is vital that you take action; this is usually a sign that your recovery is in danger. If you belong to a fellowship, you need to share about how you are feeling, or at least tell your sponsor. Another option would be to speak to a therapist or addiction counsellor, this way you can dig down to the driving force behind these thoughts. The worst thing you can do is just keep these thoughts a secret as they can start to fester.

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