If you're in recovery from a substance use disorder, you already know how much work it took to get there, and you'll want to do everything possible to avoid having a relapse. It may seem that relapse is the last thing that could happen to you, but the truth is they are very common for people new to recovery.
This article discusses what sobriety means and describes strategies that can support your long-term recovery. It also covers tips on how to deal with the challenges you'll face on your journey to sobriety.
What Is Sobriety?
By definition, sobriety means not being under the influence of a substance. However, the word is often used in different ways in different contexts. Many 12-step programs suggest that sobriety means total abstinence and never using the substance ever again.
Other definitions, however, often focus on the process of recovery and developing coping mechanisms and habits that support health and wellness over the long term. Total abstinence may be the goal, but the reality is that setbacks are common.
It is estimated that up to 80% of those who find long-term sobriety had at least one relapse along the way.
Some people experience many setbacks before they find lasting recovery. Your intentions may be good, but it takes more than willpower to avoid having a relapse.
There are a variety of tools available that can support your path to sobriety. Research suggests that while 12-step groups are effective, people often don't continue their involvement at beneficial levels over the long term.
One study found that mutual support groups can be as effective as 12-step programs and may help improve the odds of success for people who are committed to maintaining a lifetime of total abstinence.
How to Stay Sober
Some say the best advice for newcomers to recovery on how to stay sober is simple: "Don't drink or use and go to meetings." If that formula works for you, then by all means, do it.
But for most people, staying sober isn't that straightforward. The more strategies you learn to identify triggers, cope with stress, and manage your new sober life, the easier it is to prevent relapse.
Identify Your Personal Triggers
A big part of preventing relapse is understanding your external triggers, or the people, places, things, and situations that elicit thoughts or cravings associated with substance use, as well as your internal triggers like feelings, thoughts, or emotions associated with substance use.
Once you identify your biggest risks, you can create a plan to prepare for or avoid them. Some common triggers may include:
People who are still using drugs or drinking
Job or financial problems
Recognize Relapse Warning Signs
A relapse can sneak up on you, usually because you don't recognize the warning signs. A relapse begins long before you actually pick up a drink or a drug and involves three phases: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse.
Returning to addictive thinking patterns
Engaging in compulsive, self-defeating behaviors
Seeking out situations involving people who use alcohol and drugs
Thinking less rationally, and behaving less responsibly
Finding yourself in a situation in which drug or alcohol use seems like a logical escape from pain
Prepare for PAWS
Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) involves experiencing withdrawal symptoms that persist past the detox period. Such symptoms are often related to mood and may include irritability, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and sleep problems.
Depending on the type of dependency, PAWS can last from six months to two years after you stop using drugs or alcohol.
The symptoms involved in PAWS can be a barrier to recovery if you're not careful. In addition to being able to recognize them, it's important to know when to seek help.
If PAWS is severe or if you're experiencing prolonged symptoms, a medical professional can help you work through them and remain in recovery without relapse.
Avoid Old Routines and Habits
It stands to reason that if you quit your drug of choice but continue with your same routine, hanging around the same people and places, and not making any changes in your circumstances, it will be much easier to slip back into your old behaviors and habits.
Some of the immediate changes you will need to make will be obvious—like not hanging around the people that you used with or obtained drugs from. After all, you can't hang around your drug dealer or old drinking buddies and expect to remain sober for very long.
Build Healthy Relationships
Now that you are sober, you may have discovered that some of your past relationships were not only unhealthy but downright toxic. It's not just your drinking buddies and drug dealers who can get you into trouble—sometimes those who are closest to you can contribute to a relapse.
For example, you may have developed a co-dependent relationship, or a family member, friend, or employer may have been enabling you without even knowing it.
If you find it difficult to make new, sober friends, try joining a support group. Spending more time with supportive loved ones and planning activities for the entire family can also help you develop a healthier lifestyle and avoid situations in which you would normally drink or use drugs.
It is also important to seek help from a therapist. A mental health professional can help you cope with some of the challenges you'll face on your path to sobriety.
Develop a Structured Schedule
Having a chaotic or disorganized lifestyle can also hinder your recovery. It's important to develop a structured daily and weekly schedule and stick to it.
A structured routine will help you achieve other goals in your life, whether short-term like being on time for work or long-term like going back to school and changing careers.
Staying sober is a high priority but developing and pursuing other goals can help you maintain that sobriety.
Practice Healthy Living
Chronically misusing drugs and/or alcohol can take a major toll on your physical and emotional health, and now that you're in recovery, you'll want to prioritize self-care and ensure you have the fortitude to remain sober. Keys to a healthy lifestyle include:
Making time for recreational activities and hobbies
Eating regular, well-balanced meals
Getting ample, quality sleep
Practicing relaxation strategies, like mindfulness meditation and yoga
Focus on Your Finances
People in recovery from a substance use disorder frequently have problems meeting work-related responsibilities, maintaining employment, and managing money. If you were active in your addiction for a period of time, you may have developed financial problems.
Financial troubles and problems finding and keeping employment are major triggers for relapse6—but it is possible to take baby steps and get your finances in order. Just keep in mind that your improvements won't happen overnight.
Consider reaching out to a vocational rehabilitation counselor and career coach to help you update your resume, practice job interview skills, and locate jobs that match your skills and experience.
Once you do return to work, it's important to create a budget and take steps to safeguard yourself as work stress can be a relapse trigger.
Stay Cool and Calm
Many people who misuse alcohol or drugs have trouble dealing with anger. If left unchecked, anger can have a negative impact on your health and your lasting sobriety.
Anger is a normal and natural emotion, but how you deal with it will make a difference in maintaining your recovery.
For many people with a substance use disorder, it's simply a matter of never having learned the appropriate way to manage your anger. Talk to your therapist, other healthcare provider, or sponsor about how to deal with your anger in ways that won't cause you to harm yourself or others or turn to alcohol or drugs.
Deal With Past Mistakes
Most people who make their way into recovery have left a lot of pain and suffering in their wake. Feeling guilty or shameful for past behavior or actions during active addiction is pretty natural and healthy.
Shame is described as having negative beliefs about yourself and your self-worth. Guilt is having negative feelings about your past behavior. People in recovery can experience a lot of shame simply for having become addicted in the first place.
If these emotions become excessive, however, they can hold you back from recovery. If you are trying to maintain a sober lifestyle, those feelings can become toxic and contribute to relapse if you don't deal with them properly.
Most who find recovery also find that they have emotionally damaged friends and loved ones and have many regrets about their past decisions. To avoid relapse and stay sober, it's important that you take the necessary steps to learn from your past mistakes and begin to live life more responsibly.
Find Balance in Your Life
One common mistake for those who are new to alcohol and drug recovery is substituting a new compulsive behavior for their old one.8 People new to recovery can find themselves approaching their new diet, exercise program, job, and even participation in support groups with a compulsion that echoes addiction.
Although their new activities are healthy and productive, they can be a stumbling block to lasting recovery if they become a transfer addiction to fill the void left by the original addiction. The secret is to find a healthy balance and to gain control over everything in your life and all of your choices.
The key is to learn that you have choices and that you can maintain control. If any area of your life is out of control, it will not help you maintain lasting sobriety.
If you’re involved in a 12-step program, you likely already know the importance of milestones. In these programs, it’s customary to award plastic chips as you progress to the year-mark at which time you receive a bronze coin.
Acknowledging and celebrating the hard work of recovery is helpful for keeping you motivated and reminding you why you took this brave step toward sobriety in the first place. Just be sure that your rewards don't involve drugs or alcohol. Instead, focus on things, experiences, and activities that will support your new, healthy lifestyle.