Why Relapse Prevention & Coping Skills Won’t Keep You Sober

by Josh

First of all, you should know that the very logic behind teaching relapse prevention techniques is misguided.

What people need to realize is that the majority of the relapse prevention techniques you learn in early recovery don’t work. In many ways, they’re placebos that mask the fact that successful recovery requires looking at a much larger picture.

You can’t overcome years and years of drug addiction or alcohol abuse through short term tactics.

Yes, relapse prevention tactics may be able to help you in a specific scenario when everything lines up – but long-term recovery requires more than short-term tactics to avoid relapse – it requires massive action and restructuring your life in a totally new way. It means building a foundation of mental and emotional stability that doesn’t cause you to seek self-medication through drugs or alcohol.

What Is Relapse Prevention?

Relapse prevention – the way the term is traditionally used – teaches addicts to identify high risk situations and gives them techniques to cope with the situation.

For example, a common relapse prevention technique taught in AA is to call your sponsor when you have an urge to drink. Other techniques include distracting yourself with a walk or going to a meeting, or waiting a set amount of time before taking any actions that could lead to relapse, such as driving to the liquor store.

The Problem With Relapse Prevention Techniques

The problem with the traditional relapse prevention approach is that it doesn’t acknowledge that relapse is driven by irrationality and emotion.

Let’s take the “calling the sponsor” technique for example. This can be a coping mechanism in some scenarios – the alcoholic/addict feels an urge to use and calls their sponsor, who offers support and reassurance. But what happens when you’re so desperate for a drink you don’t want to call your sponsor, because you know they’ll talk you out of it? What happens if you can’t get in touch with your sponsor? Do you automatically cave and hit the bottle?

Once an addict or alcoholic snaps under emotional upheaval, they start to see alcohol/drugs as the only solution to their problem. At this point, the motivation to apply relapse prevention tactics is gone, and thus the tactics are useless.

Once the addict has made the decision to self medicate with their substance of choice, a call to their sponsor is the last thing on their mind. The problem is that relapse is emotional – its triggered by emotions and driven by irrationality and denial.

Once an addict/alcoholic hits a certain threshold in their emotions, all they want to do is use. They no longer care about recovery – the logical parts of their brain have shut off and they’re simply driven by a desperate need to self-medicate.

And that’s the problem. The emotional duress experienced by addicts often causes them to throw any learned techniques out the window. By the time most addicts relapse, they’ve mentally checked out – they have no desire to stay in recovery, and thus no desire to use the techniques they’ve learned. The short-term tactics they learned didn’t give them the tools to minimize and avoid the emotional duress that underlies the desire to drink/use.

Sure, you can certainly learn relapse prevention tactics and coping skills, and they might help you in specific situations. But without something bigger, you’re almost certain to relapse once you hit an emotional roadbump. The key is to avoid those emotional roadbumps in the first place by taking holistic approach to recovery.

Focusing On The Big Picture

Instead of teaching addicts and alcoholics specific warning signs and giving them techniques to cope,- techniques they will ultimately ignore during emotional upheaval – relapse prevention should be taught as a broader, holistic strategy of recovery. The addict should be focusing on the kind of growth needed to develop stability in their life and eliminate/control the desire to self-medicate from within.

Instead of simply turning to their sponsor whenever you feel like you need a drink, your focus should be on building the type of life where you don’t feel the desperate need to drink in the first place. You need to learn to eliminate the emotional triggers that will cause you to snap and turn to alcohol for self-medication. This could mean cutting out negative relationships, developing stress management techniques that work for you, and seeking personal growth in every facet of your life.

Are You Repairing The Problem Or Just Patching It Up?

When you use a coping skill to deal with the urge to drink, are you really fixing your problem, or are you just patching it up?

Instead of focusing on specific tactics, focus on the bigger picture questions. How can I advance my life so I can find meaning in things other than drugs/alcohol? How can I have fun without drinking/doing drugs? Where can I find new, healthy relationships to replace the ones I lost when I left my old life behind? What can I do to challenge myself?

Instead of turning to new coping skills to deal with challenges, take your thinking one level up, and ask yourself why you needed that coping skill in the first place? Why were you in a position where you needed to call on a coping skill? Are you harboring resentment and anger? Hanging out in an old neighborhood with old drinking buddies? Getting back into a toxic relationship? Or do you simply have nothing going on in your life?

Why Holistic Recovery Is A Relapse Prevention Plan That Works

Instead of learning tactics, the solution is to take a holistic approach to recovery. This means:

  • Learning to have fun without alcohol/drugs
  • Reducing emotional upheaval by taking yourself away from negative influences
  • Setting lifegoals and working towards achieving them
  • Looking to improve every facet of your life
  • Building real self-esteem

The holistic approach to recovery works because its focused on change from within. It means working towards true self-esteem through self-reflection, better physical health, and achievement, rather than simply repeating hollow affirmations everyday. It means giving yourself a reason to stay sober, beyond the mere need to attend a meeting and declare your sobriety.

Think of what building real self-esteem can do for you; it shields you from the wild emotional upheaval that is often triggered by insecurity. It lets you pursue meaningful goals and relationships, which in turn give you a reason not to just say “screw it!” the next time you’re on the brink of relapse.

Instead of having a technique to apply, self-esteem and the quest for meaningful fulfillment will give you an emotional counter-balance against the irrationality of addiction.

Relapse prevention isn’t about techniques and coping skills, it’s about living a relapse proof lifestyle.  Click here to tweet this quote.

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