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After a Relapse

What to do if you or a loved one relapses

A relapse into an addiction, an eating disorder, alcoholism, or mood disorder triggers, for many, a huge amount of fear and a range of intense emotions. Particularly in our close relationships, we are extremely sensitive to what is happening with one another and when relapse occurs, the perception of threat is heightened. Emotionally charged reactions tend to dominate our relationships which only serve to fuel the problem, rather than settle it.

In the event of a relapse, we can take steps to separate ourselves from the emotional upheaval, and create pockets of calm, respite, and safety that we can then step into. If we can get enough support and are willing to work at it, the capacity to settle is increased and with it a greater chance of responding rather than reacting.

Tips for supporting yourself or your loved one after a relapse

1) Be open to what change may lay in the relapse

Relapse does not mean the death of recovery. Relapse rather invites reflection and is a perfect opportunity to get clear what needs, and triggers require better management next time round and to come at recovery with renewed energy and commitment down the track. Few things motivate people in recovery like a relapse, and many a solid recovery foundation has been built on the back of a relapse.

2) Hold a realistic perception of recovery

Recovery is a process. Those who get clean and stay clean for the rest of time, without a slip are amongst a small minority. The addict’s brain is wired for using, with pleasure and reward centres primed for chemical relief. It takes time and a lot of work to create alternative neural circuitry, and for reliable alternatives to be found when seeking relief, pleasure, and reward. Because of this powerful neurochemistry, slips and struggles are very often par for the course.

3) Seek out good support

A well balanced support network is the backbone of any successful recovery journey. Support networks keep us accountable and provide much needed connection often missing when a crisis unfolds. Support comes in many forms and can be made up of health professionals, community programs, recovery groups, 12 step fellowship, volunteer organisations or a spiritual community. Support is our daily routine, the quality of our sleep, eating the right foods, moving our body, managing our finances, and connecting with others. We underestimate how much support we need, but good support, and the relief and connection it brings, is critical to long term wellbeing and lasting change.

4) Set limits and maintain boundaries

Boundaries are critical for everyone, when we don’t protect ourselves by setting limits, we are more likely to feel fearful and threatened, allowing ourselves to be harmed and depleted. Boundaries can be tricky, however, the person who is able to put in the work and set the limits when others can’t, is not only helping themselves but the whole system. Feelings of guilt often arise as we start to set boundaries and take care of ourselves, but we don’t invite wellness by compromising our own.

Signs of Healthy Boundaries

  • You can say no when you want to without experiencing tidal waves of guilt
  • You no longer blame yourself for everything that goes wrong in a relationship
  • You no longer feel overly responsible for others and their feelings
  • You disagree with a friend and yet are able to maintain a friendship
  • You realise that you are not responsible for the actions of others

Top Tips for Delivering Boundaries Effectively

  • Deliver boundaries when you are calm not angry or uncontained
  • Be kind and courteous and clear that you are creating safety, not punishing
  • Stay with yourself rather than worry about the other, their experience is theirs
  • Assume the person is resilient enough for the boundary rather than too weak
  • Ensure clarity and consistency of delivery, otherwise it is merely a suggestion

Some helpful words for setting boundaries…

  • No thank you
  • I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’ll have to get back to you
  • I would love to connect with you but not when you are, drinking, using, raging
  • I am willing to help you with ____ but not ______.
  • I hear what you’re saying but I see it a differently

5) When helping is hindering – staying focused on your own life and responsibilities

Families are often instinctually moved to abandon their own needs and responsibilities, and in turn pick up the needs and responsibilities of their loved one. Protecting and helping those we love is a powerful impulse wired into us as social beings, however, If we are over involved in a loved one’s addiction and dive in to take over the other’s responsibilities, whilst we may feel helpful, only disempowers them and depletes ourselves. Over functioning for our loved ones not only confirms their powerlessness but impedes their recovery and motivators for change.

6) Accept our lack of control and steer clear of blaming

One of the most difficult things about a relapse is the experience of being powerless over those we love. Attempting to control those we love to determine their outcomes will only intensify things, and can invite a strong reaction to the control, in the form of increased using or acting out. If you can accept your lack of control in the situation, you are more likely to make better decisions, set healthier boundaries and avoid fear-based, responses. 

While anger, blame and resentment are natural responses when relapse occurs, any attempts to reach each other via criticism or verbal beat-downs serves only to hurt and distance the people we love. Kindness and respect will ignite opportunities for connection rather than shut them down. However, kindness and respect does not mean abandoning our needs or setting clear boundaries, it is rather a nonviolent approach to communication that is centred on care.

Being a mindful observer of ourselves rather than getting lost in emotion, will increase our executive functioning and our capacity to manage strong emotions. Relapse often carries with it a deep negative association with failure or being weak willed, however it is just another reflection of life’s ups and downs, the successes and failures we all experience as human beings. While we need to acknowledge that fear and despair are inevitable during a relapse, they also need to be carefully managed so that we can be a healthy support for ourselves and those we love.

Byron Private offers an effective pathway to recovery for those struggling with mental health, addictions, and trauma. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out to our clinical team for a confidential discussion on 02 6684 4145 or via our online contact form.

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