Most experts in the addiction and recovery field believe that there are 3 main or major stages of relapse:

  1. Emotional
  2. Mental
  3. Physical

Many experts also believe that these 3 major stages can be broken down into 11 smaller phases, which are based on work by Dr. Gorski and Dr. Miller:


  1. Denial/Return of denial
  2. Avoidance/Defensiveness
  3. Growing crisis
  4. Immobilization/getting stuck


  1. Confusion/overreaction
  2. Depression
  3. Loss of control
  4. Recognizing the loss of control
  5. Feeling trapped/losing options


  1. Relapse itself
  2. The aftermath

Relapse is not just a one-time event: it’s a process. It’s often seen as a failure, but it’s crucial to understand that relapse is often a part of the recovery journey. It’s not a sign of weakness—think of it as an indication that your recovery plan needs adjustments.

By understanding relapse, you’re setting yourself up for a stronger, more resilient recovery.

Relapse involves more than simply falling back into old habits. It’s a complex cycle, and each phase has its own unique set of challenges and solutions. Understanding these stages can help you identify potential warning signs and take proactive steps to prevent a full-blown relapse.

The most important aspect of relapse to remember is that it can take weeks or months to build up. You have time to recognize the process and work toward a solution.

The 3 Stages of Relapse

The journey of relapse is often divided into 3 distinct stages: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse.

1. The Emotional Stage of Relapse

The emotional stage of relapse is characterized by negative emotions and behaviors. You might be feeling anxious, isolated, or angry, and you might start neglecting your self-care.

During this stage, you might also start skipping 12-step meetingsCelebrate Recovery meetings, or SMART Recovery meetings. You might start ignoring your recovery plan entirely. You’ll likely find lots of excuses and justifications happening around this time, lots of reasons why you don’t need to do recovery-related activities or shouldn’t have to.

Here are some of the major signs you’re in the emotional stage of relapse:

  • You keep your emotions to yourself and stuff them inside
  • You’re isolating from the people around you
  • You’re no longer doing recovery or self-care activities you used to do regularly (meditating, praying, exercising, hobbies, meetings)
  • You’re sleeping poorly, eating badly, smoking more, or drinking more caffeine
  • You’re letting the needs of others dominate your own
  • You’re returning to other bad behaviors that defined your using or drinking career:
  • Lying
  • Cheating
  • Committing crimes
  • Acting out sexually
  • Gambling
  • Playing video games excessively
  • Selling drugs
  • Getting into fights
  • Being violent
  • Stealing
  • Speeding
  • Road raging

One of the most effective ways to navigate the emotional stage of relapse is through self-awareness. Pay attention to your feelings and behaviors. If you notice any changes, take it as a sign that something needs to be addressed.

Reach out to your support network and talk about what you’re going through, and then come up with an action plan. This might be as simple as calling your sponsor more often and going to more meetings, or it might include a wide range of changes that need to happen.

2. The Mental Stage of Relapse

The mental stage of relapse is marked by a constant battle in your mind. One part of you wants to use, but another part wants to stay sober. This internal conflict can be overwhelming, and for some people, it might not last very long—maybe just days or hours.

During this stage, you’ll notice an uptick in the above behaviors combined with new, more alarming thoughts:

  • You start romanticizing your past use
  • You go back to the people, places, and things associated with your past use or drinking
  • You start planning your relapse (always keeping it hypothetical)
  • You set conditions on your sobriety that, if broken, will allow you to relapse (If my parent dies, I’ll relapse. If my boss fires me this week like I know they will, I’ll relapse)
  • You minimize how bad your life was when using or drinking
  • You minimize the consequences that you and others experienced as a result of using or drinking
  • You start making deals with yourself about how your relapse will go (I’ll just have a few drinks. I’ll only smoke weed. I’ll stay away from heroin)
  • You start convincing yourself you’ll be able to control it better this time
  • You actively start looking for opportunities to kick off your relapse

These are all signs that your recovery is in jeopardy, and it’s crucial to take immediate action. Fortunately, the answer here is the same as in the previous stage—get back to doing what was helping you.

For example, you might just need to force yourself to exercise even though you haven’t been to the gym for a month, which you can then use as a springboard to call someone in recovery or your counselor and talk about what’s going on. Or maybe you just need to hit a meeting, or start meditating in the morning again.

Or, if you’re feeling really overwhelmed and anxious, it’s okay to go back to a place where you felt safe in the past—a sober house, or even a rehab.

There’s no shame in returning to these places before you physically relapse. It might even save your life.

3. The Physical Stage of Relapse

The physical stage of relapse is when you actually start using again. It’s the result of neglecting the signs in the emotional and mental stages, and it’s often seen as a failure. But remember, relapse is not a sign of failure—it’s a part of the recovery process.

During this stage, it’s crucial to reach out for help. Whether it’s a trusted loved one, a sponsor, or a professional, getting support as soon as possible can quite literally save your life. It’s also important to remember that it’s never too late to get back on track. Even if you’ve relapsed, you can still choose to continue with your recovery.

The difficulty with this stage is that, for many people, stopping once they’ve started is next to impossible. When you combine this with the guilt and shame that most people feel when they relapse on top of the potential for withdrawal and the prospect of having to return to treatment, many people would rather continue to suffer than find a way to stop.

This is why it’s so critical to try to stop a relapse before it starts. Many people create a relapse prevention plan with this exact goal in mind. That way, if a relapse happens, they’re able to take action during the first two stages to hopefully avoid the third.

And, if they do end up physically relapsing, they can then have a clear idea of what they need to do after the relapse is over.

You Can Recover From a Relapse

Understanding relapse is crucial to your recovery journey. By recognizing the stages and phases of relapse, you can take proactive steps to prevent it.

Recovery is not a linear process, and relapse is not a sign of failure. It’s a part of the journey, and it’s an opportunity to strengthen your recovery.

If you’ve recently relapsed or are worried you’re going to relapse, we can help. Getting back into a sober living home, partial hospitalization program (PHP), or an intensive outpatient program (IOP) to augment your recovery might be exactly what you need to get back on track.

At ASIC Recovery, our programs are dedicated to helping you develop healthier coping skills and build a supportive recovery network so that you can achieve long-term sobriety.

Click to learn more about our IOP, counseling, and sober living programs in Fort Worth, Texas.