Alcohol Relapse: Signs, Triggers, & Treatment

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Alcohol relapse is a common occurrence in those trying to achieve and maintain sobriety in the recovery journey from alcohol use disorder (the clinical term for alcoholism). The journey to recovery demands consistent effort and self-discipline, and the path may not always be linear.

An integral aspect of any alcoholism treatment plan is relapse prevention. Both the recovery process and the potential for alcoholic relapse are influenced by factors like the severity of the alcohol use disorder, co-occurring mental health conditions, coping skills, motivation, and support system. Alcoholism relapse does not happen in isolation, much like alcoholism itself. Throughout treatment for alcohol use disorder, individuals explore the underlying motivations behind their drinking and equip themselves to confront similar situations in the future with healthier, more constructive responses.

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This guide highlights issues that include:

  • What to do when an alcoholic relapses?
  • How to help a recovering alcoholic who keeps relapsing.
  • How to support an alcoholic who relapsed more than once.
  • How to connect with emergency treatment when an alcoholic relapses.

What is Alcohol Relapse?

Alcohol relapse refers to the recurrence of alcohol use or heavy drinking after a period of abstinence or sobriety. It can happen at any stage of the recovery process, from early sobriety to long-term recovery. Relapse is not uncommon in the journey to overcome alcohol use disorder, and it is considered a setback rather than a failure. View relapse as an opportunity for self-reflection, learning, and recommitment to recovery rather than a reason for discouragement.

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Signs of Alcohol Relapse

Recognizing the signs of alcohol relapse is crucial for early intervention and getting back on track with recovery. While the specific signs can vary from person to person, some common indicators of alcohol relapse may include:

  • Resumption of drinking: The most evident sign of relapse is a return to alcohol consumption.
  • Increased cravings: Intense cravings for alcohol may reappear, making it challenging to resist the urge to drink.
  • Isolation: A person in relapse may withdraw from social support networks and recovery-related activities, choosing isolation over connection.
  • Neglecting responsibilities: A decline in fulfilling personal, work, or family responsibilities due to alcohol use.
  • Changes in behavior: Noticeable changes in behavior, such as irritability, mood swings, or secrecy about activities.
  • Preoccupation with alcohol: Constantly thinking about or romanticizing alcohol, making it difficult to focus on recovery.
  • Loss of interest in recovery: A decrease in participation in recovery-related activities, such as support group meetings or therapy sessions.
  • Justification and denial: Engaging in rationalization or denial about alcohol use, downplaying its significance or consequences.
  • Avoidance of accountability: Avoiding accountability for drinking or making excuses for relapse.
  • Emotional distress: Overwhelming emotional distress, anxiety, depression, or despair that may trigger alcohol use as a coping mechanism.
  • Reconnecting with enablers: Reconnecting with individuals who enable or encourage alcohol use.
  • Disregard for consequences: A disregard for the negative consequences of drinking, such as legal, health, or relationship issues.

Experiencing one or more of these signs does not mean that relapse is inevitable. Recognizing these signs early and reaching out for help or support can prevent a full-blown relapse and support a return to recovery efforts. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of alcohol relapse, seek assistance from a healthcare professional or addiction specialist to address the issue and develop strategies for relapse prevention.

Alcohol Relapse Triggers

Alcohol relapse triggers are situations, emotions, or circumstances that increase the risk of returning to alcohol use for individuals in recovery. Recognizing these triggers can help inform relapse prevention and developing strategies to cope with them effectively.

High levels of stress can be a powerful trigger for relapse. Individuals may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with stress and temporarily alleviate emotional discomfort.

Social situations where alcohol is readily available, or peer pressure to drink, can be challenging for individuals in recovery. Feeling obligated to conform to social norms can lead to relapse.

Feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, or loneliness can also be powerful triggers. Some individuals may have used alcohol in the past to numb these emotions. Surprisingly, even positive emotions – happiness or celebrations – can trigger relapse. People may associate alcohol with reward and celebration, making it tempting to use on joyous occasions.

Exposure to environmental cues associated with drinking, such as passing by a familiar bar or seeing alcohol advertisements, can trigger cravings and relapse. Alcohol use can also be triggered by conflict or difficulties in personal relationships, especially if they lead to emotional distress.

Physical discomfort, from pain or illness can be a relapse trigger if a person previously used alcohol to self-medicate symptoms.

A lack of engaging activities or boredom can lead to thoughts of using alcohol to pass the time.

Feeling overly confident in the ability to control alcohol use (“I can have just one drink“) can be a deceptive trigger, as it may lead to excessive drinking.

Becoming complacent about recovery and neglecting self-care or support systems can be a trigger for relapse. This is known as pink cloud syndrome.

Specific dates, such as anniversaries of past drinking episodes or holidays associated with alcohol consumption, can be challenging for those in recovery.

Facing financial or legal problems can lead to stress and may trigger a desire to use alcohol to escape or numb the situation.

Recognizing these triggers and developing coping strategies, such as mindfulness, stress management techniques, seeking support, and having a relapse prevention plan in place, can significantly reduce the risk of relapse. Individuals in recovery should be proactive in identifying and addressing their unique triggers to maintain long-term sobriety.

Why Do Alcoholics Relapse?

Some of the key reasons why alcoholics may relapse include:

  • Cravings and triggers: Persistent cravings for alcohol, triggered by stress, emotions, or environmental cues, can be overwhelming and lead to relapse.
  • Underlying psychological issues: Co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma, may remain unaddressed or undertreated, making individuals vulnerable to relapse.
  • Peer influence: Returning to social circles or relationships that involve alcohol use can exert pressure and influence individuals to relapse.
  • Lack of coping skills: Insufficient or ineffective coping strategies for dealing with life’s challenges and stressors can lead to relapse as alcohol may have been the previous coping mechanism.
  • Overconfidence: Feeling overconfident about the ability to control alcohol use can lead to complacency and eventual relapse.
  • Isolation: Social isolation or a lack of a supportive network can result in feelings of loneliness and boredom, which may drive individuals to relapse as a means of escape.
  • Emotional distress: Intense emotional distress, including grief, anger, or frustration, can be difficult to manage, prompting some people to turn to alcohol for relief.
  • Lack of structured routine: A structured daily routine in recovery can provide stability and purpose. Without it, some people may struggle to find a sense of direction and may be more susceptible to relapse.
  • Negative self-image: Low self-esteem and negative self-image can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and self-destructive behaviors, including alcohol relapse.
  • Medical issues: Physical health problems or chronic pain may lead individuals to self-medicate with alcohol, resulting in relapse.
  • Celebrations and holidays: Special occasions or holidays associated with alcohol consumption can be laden with triggers for those in recovery.
  • Stigma and shame: The stigma surrounding addiction and feelings of shame may deter individuals from seeking help or disclosing their struggles, making it more difficult to maintain sobriety.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Unrealistic expectations of quick and effortless recovery can lead to disappointment and relapse when progress is slower than anticipated.
An image if a man who is upset because he's experiencing alcohol relapse

I Relapsed on Alcohol, What Do I Do?

If you have experienced a relapse with alcohol, remember that relapse is a setback, not a failure and it does not define your worth or potential for success. Avoid self-blame and self-criticism. 

Reach out to your support network, whether it’s friends, family, a sponsor, or a therapist. Sharing your experience can provide emotional relief and guidance.

Reflect on the circumstances, emotions, or situations that led to the relapse. Understanding your triggers can help you develop strategies to avoid them in the future.

Reaffirm your commitment to recovery. Focus on the progress that you’ve made and your desire to continue working towards sobriety.

Consider consulting with a healthcare professional, counselor, or addiction specialist. They can help assess the situation, adjust your treatment plan if needed, and provide guidance on relapse prevention strategies.

Treatment After Alcohol Relapse

Treatment following an alcohol relapse may involve several elements, depending on your specific situation.


A comprehensive assessment by a healthcare provider or addiction specialist can help determine the reasons for the relapse and identify any co-occurring mental health disorders.

Adjusting treatment

Based on the assessment, your treatment plan may be adjusted to address any new or underlying factors contributing to relapse. This could involve changes in therapy approaches, medications, or support group involvement.


Individual counseling or therapy sessions can provide a safe space to explore the triggers and emotional factors contributing to the relapse. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), MET (motivational enhancement therapy), and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) are common therapeutic approaches.

Support groups

Continued participation in support groups, such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or SMART Recovery, can provide invaluable peer support and relapse prevention strategies.

MAT (medication-assisted treatment)

In some cases, MAT (medication-assisted treatment) may be recommended to help manage cravings and reduce the risk of relapse.

Building coping skills

Developing and enhancing coping skills is essential for managing triggers and stressors without turning to alcohol.

Healthy lifestyle

Focusing on physical health through regular exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep can contribute to overall well-being and support recovery.

Remember: relapse doesn’t diminish your progress or your ability to achieve sobriety. It’s a reminder that recovery is a process, and setbacks can be overcome. With the right support, strategies, and determination, you can get back on the path to a healthy, alcohol-free life.


What percentage of alcoholics relapse?

The percentage of alcoholics who relapse can vary widely depending on factors such as the level of addiction, the effectiveness of treatment, and the support system in place. That said, research suggests that the alcohol relapse rate is between 40% and 60%.

What do you do when an alcoholic relapses?

When an alcoholic relapses, approach the situation with empathy and support. Encourage them to seek help immediately, whether through a therapist, support group, or addiction treatment program. Avoid blaming or shaming the individual and to help them recommit to their recovery journey.

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Get Treatment for Alcohol Relapse at California Detox

Whether you have relapsed in recovery or you are wondering if you should go to rehab for the first time, we can help you recalibrate your life at California Detox. We treat alcohol addictions and mental health conditions at our luxury beachside facility in Laguna Beach, CA.

If you are dependent on alcohol, our supervised medical detox program provides access to medications alongside 24/7 clinical and emotional care. Supervised detoxification streamlines the alcohol withdrawal process and allows you to move directly into ongoing treatment.

Our inpatient treatment program offers a highly structured and supportive pathway to ongoing recovery from alcoholism. You can connect with a personalized blend of the following therapies:

When you are ready to live unconstrained by alcohol abuse, call 949.694.8305 for more information and immediate assistance.



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