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How many stages of alcohol or drug relapse are there? Well, it depends on who you ask, and how you break the stages down. But at a top level, there are three stages of returning to addictive habits.

The three phases of relapse:

  1. Emotional relapse
  2. Mental relapse
  3. Physical relapse

This article will explain these three phases, so you can better understand how they may affect you in the future, or how they have played a part in your recovery journey in the past.

Emotional relapse

The first of the three phases of the rejection of recovery principles is all to do with the emotional side. It is important to note the difference between thoughts and feelings here, as they can be having entirely contradictory approaches to recovery.

Thoughts may still be focused on staying on track with recovery, but feelings – or emotions – may be paving the way for a return to active addiction.

An emotional relapse can look a bit like this:

  • Keeping emotions inside and not sharing them with others
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Skipping individual or group meetings
  • Going through the motions at meetings rather than opening up and sharing
  • Avoiding own problems by focusing on other people instead
  • Neglecting self-care (read more about this in our relapse prevention article)

Of course, not every case is the same, but these are just common trends that are seen in people who are in this phase.

One quick acronym to keep in mind is HALT, which is a good mantra to live by when you are a recovering addict. It stands for:


The words that make up ‘HALT’ all add up to some of the frequent triggers when it comes to returning to active addiction. And whilst they all seem like simple things to address, they do require extra effort on the most challenging of days. If you need help to get food, or are feeling isolated, reach out to a trusted person in your network. A counsellor or support line can be a first port of call for emotional issues.

Now we need to consider how someone would shift from an emotional relapse, as seen here, into the next phase: mental relapse. It can be summarised like this: prolonged negative self-care. This is why the section above is so important; little things can add up over time.

Mental relapse

The shift into a mental relapse may be subtle, but once it arrives, it can progress through to the next stage: physical relapse. But more about that shortly. First, let’s take a look more closely at this phase.

It’s almost like a war going on in your mind. Part of you starts thinking about using alcohol or drugs, but another part doesn’t. As mentioned, this is progressive. So at first, you may be able to resist the thoughts and lean more heavily towards not using, but as the thoughts continue, the need increases to use once again.

Like the emotional relapse, there are some signs to be aware of for this phase. These include:

  • Craving the use of drugs or alcohol
  • Reminiscing about previous use, including people, places and items
  • Playing down negative side of previous use, or glamourising it
  • Bargaining or lying
  • Finding loopholes to use again, and thinking about ways you can be more in control
  • Trying to find an opportunity to relapse
  • Actively planning a relapse

All of this can seem quite far away when you’re in the early stages of recovery, but triggers in your personal life can pop up at any time, putting you at risk. Triggers can appear in many forms, and can be based on emotions, or external factors.

For example, going to an all-inclusive resort shortly after a period of rehab could be a potential trigger. There would be free-flowing alcohol, and a party vibe that would be difficult to avoid. It is situations like this which would be beneficial for a person with an addictive personality to avoid. Remove the triggers that can be avoided to make the recovery a possibility.

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Physical relapse

Now we arrive at the final phase: physical relapse. There may be a single lapse (often called a slip) or a return to uncontrolled using – a relapse. It is important to remember that a single slip can lead to a long term loss of recovery. One drink may seem like it can be controlled, but it often triggers the mental relapse and thinking about using again.

Part of relapse prevention is to reduce the amount of opportunities to make physical relapse a possibility. Often, it can take place when a person feels like they won’t get caught taking drugs or alcohol. A recovery plan can look at different scenarios and create rehearsed exit strategies for certain situations.

It becomes easier to see how the three phases of relapse come together by the time you think of the physical use. If a person is facing emotional stress, has mentally been thinking about using, and then a situation arises where it becomes possible to drink or take drugs, it suddenly becomes much harder to say no.

That is why it is important to stay vigilant to all stages of alcohol or drug addictive behaviours, and to understand how they overlap as part of the process.

Do you need relapse support?

Our relapse information hub has a range of other articles that you may find helpful on this topic. However, you may need additional support for yourself, or perhaps someone that you know.

Delamere is on hand for your long-term recovery. We work closely with our clients to provide aftercare plans that are tailored to the individual, and look at personal triggers that may arise.

If you have relapsed on your own recovery, you can speak to our admissions team about our recovery renewal retreats, helping you to get back on track when you have veered off course. You can contact us by live chat, webform, email or by phone at the time that is most convenient for you.

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