What is the Difference Between a Lapse and Relapse?

A few months ago, while in a group therapy session, I first heard the term lapse. Relapse is something all addicts and people in recovery are aware of, but how familiar are individuals with the term lapse? And what is the difference between a relapse and lapse? 

What is the Difference Between a Lapse and Relapse?

Relapse & Lapse What Are They?

Relapse is when an individual returns to substance use after a period of abstinence or sobriety. It is something that all addicts face when recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. Relapse is quite common and often happens because long-term use of drugs and alcohol changes brain functions. 

On the other hand, a lapse is when a person has a brief slip and may use drugs or drink, but they immediately stop again or stop using within a short period. 

How Does a Relapse Differ from a Lapse?

When a person relapses, they return to full-blown substance use. This could go on for days or weeks before they decide to stop again. Relapse makes a person feel like a failure and leaves an addict feeling hopeless, depressed, and anxious. Unfortunately, a lot of people will relapse before obtaining any length of continuous sobriety. In a lapse, an individual may use a short amount of drugs or alcohol, realize what is happening and then stop and return to recovery. There is also a freelance. A freelance is when someone in recovery accidentally uses it again. For instance, this could happen when a person unintentionally drinks or uses a substance; they may be asked for a drink without alcohol, but they are given a drink with alcohol in it.

What Are Some Types of Relapses?

There are three stages of relapse: emotional, mental, and physical. The emotional stage of relapse occurs way before a person uses a substance. Healthy coping isn’t working, and the person begins to bottle up their feelings. They may isolate themselves from others, neglect their self-care, and deny anything is wrong. At this stage, using a substance may not even be on their minds. In the mental stage of relapse, a person may struggle with cravings and start seeking ways to get high again. Part of them wants to stay sober, but they are experiencing intense cravings to use.

The National Institute of Health StatPearls “Addiction Relapse Prevention” says:

The final stage of relapse occurs when an individual resumes the use of the substance. Some researchers have differentiated a “lapse” (an initial use of the substance) from a “relapse” (uncontrolled use of the substance). However, this distinction may be detrimental to some individuals by helping them to minimize the impact of a lapse. As the DSM criteria make clear, most individuals with a substance use disorder have difficulty controlling how much they use, resulting in the likelihood that one drink, for example, will lead to many more if not corrected. Also, an initial lapse can lead to an increased obsession with further use. Many physical relapses occur during times when the individual believes their use will go undetected. In working with patients in early recovery, providers need to ensure they have the skills necessary to recognize these high-risk situations and avoid using. (NIH)

As stated above by the NIH, a physical relapse is when the individual uses a substance. What may begin as a lapse (brief slip) returns to full-blown use again or relapse. Sometimes relapses can start and go on for days, weeks, or months before they use them. A relapse prevention plan is a very important part of the recovery process. Everyone in recovery should have a relapse prevention plan to help them get through potential triggers and cravings that will occur in early recovery.

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