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What Is Relapse Prevention Treatment?

Relapse prevention is a systematic method of teaching recovering patients to recognize and manage relapse warning signs. Relapse prevention becomes the primary focus for patients who are unable to maintain abstinence from alcohol or drugs despite primary treatment.

Recovery is defined as abstinence plus a full return to bio/psycho/social functioning. As previously noted, relapse is defined as the process of becoming dysfunctional in recovery, which leads to a return to chemical use, physical or emotional collapse, or suicide. Relapse episodes are usually preceded by a series of observable warning signs. Typically, relapse progresses from bio/psycho/social stability through a period of progressively increasing distress that leads to physical or emotional collapse. The symptoms intensify unless the individual turns to the use of alcohol or drugs for relief.

To understand the progression of warning signs, it is important to look at the dynamic interaction between the recovery and relapse processes. Recovery and relapse can be described as related processes that unfold in six stages:

  • Abstaining from alcohol and other drugs
  • Separating from people, places, and things that promote the use of alcohol or drugs, and establishing a social network that supports recovery
  • Stopping self-defeating behaviors that prevent awareness of painful feelings and irrational thoughts
  • Learning how to manage feelings and emotions responsibly without resorting to compulsive behavior or the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Learning to change addictive thinking patterns that create painful feelings and self-defeating behaviors
  • Identifying and changing the mistaken core beliefs about oneself, others, and the world that promote irrational thinking.

When people who have had a stable recovery and have done well begin to relapse, they simply reverse this process. In other words, they

  • Have a mistaken belief that causes irrational thoughts
  • Begin to return to addictive thinking patterns that cause painful feelings
  • Engage in compulsive, self-defeating behaviors as a way to avoid the feelings
  • Seek out situations involving people who use alcohol and drugs
  • Find themselves in more pain, thinking less rationally, and behaving less responsibly
  • Find themselves in a situation in which drug or alcohol use seems like a logical escape from their pain, and they use alcohol or drugs.

A number of basic principles and procedures underlie the CENAPS Model of Relapse Prevention Therapy. Each principle forms the basis of specific relapse prevention therapy procedures. Counselors can use the following principles and procedures to develop appropriate treatment plans for relapse-prone patients. Following a description of each principle is the relapse prevention procedure for that principle.

Principle 1: Self-Regulation

The risk of relapse will decrease as a patient's capacity to self-regulate thinking, feeling, memory, judgment, and behavior increases.

Relapse Prevention Procedure 1: Stabilization

An initial treatment plan is established that allows relapse-prone individuals to stabilize physically, psychologically, and socially. The level of stabilization is measured by the ability to perform the basic activities of daily living. Because the symptoms of withdrawal are stress-sensitive, it is important to evaluate the patient's level of stability under both high and low stress. Many people who appear stable in a low-stress environment become unstable when placed in a more stressful environment.

The stabilization process often includes

  • Detoxification from alcohol and other drugs
  • Solving the immediate crises that threaten sobriety
  • Learning skills to identify and manage Post Acute Withdrawal and Addictive Preoccupation
  • Establishing a daily structure that includes proper diet, exercise, stress management, and regular contact with treatment personnel and self-help groups.

Because the risk of using alcohol or drugs is highest during the stabilization period, steps must be taken to prevent use during this time. The patient needs to be in a drug-free environment. Any irrational thoughts (thoughts that don't make sense to a healthy person) that are creating immediate justification for relapse need to be identified and discussed. The patient should then be helped to remember the consequences of past chemical use and to develop new coping strategies.

An early relapse intervention plan can be developed by the counselor and patient to decide what action to take if the patient begins to use alcohol or drugs. This early intervention plan motivates the patient to stay sober and provides a safety net should chemical use occur.

Principle 2: Integration

The risk of relapse will decrease as the level of conscious understanding and acceptance of situations and events that have led to past relapses increases.

Relapse Prevention Procedure 2: Self-Assessment

Self-assessment first involves a detailed reconstruction of the presenting problems (problems that caused the patient to seek treatment) and the alcohol and drug use history. A careful exploration of the presenting problems identifies critical issues that can trigger relapse. This allows the counselor to design intervention plans that help to solve crises that can be used for relapse justification in the early treatment stages. The next step is a reconstruction of the recovery and relapse history. This helps identify past causes of relapse.

In reconstructing the recovery/relapse history, it is important to identify the recovery tasks that were completed or ignored, and to find the sequence of warning signs that led back to drug or alcohol use. The assessment is most effective if the counselor reconstructs the relapse history using exercises (done as homework assignments), such as making a list of all relapse episodes and identifying the problems that led to relapse. These assignments should be reviewed in group and individual sessions.

Principle 3: Understanding

The risk of relapse will decrease as the understanding of the general factors that cause relapse increases.

Relapse Prevention Procedure 3: Relapse Education

Relapsers need accurate information about what causes relapse and what can be done to prevent it. This is typically provided in structured relapse education sessions and reading assignments, which provide specific information about recovery, relapse, and relapse prevention planning methods. This information should include, but not be limited to

  • A bio/psycho/social model of addictive disease
  • A DMR
  • Common Astuck points" in recovery
  • Complicating factors in relapse
  • Warning sign identification
  • Relapse warning sign management strategies
  • Effective recovery planning.

The recommended format for a relapse education session is as follows:

  • Introduction and pretest (15 minutes)
  • Educational presentationClecture, film, or videotape (30 minutes)
  • Educational exercise conducted in dyads or small groups (15 minutes)
  • Large group discussion (15 minutes)
  • Post-test session and review of correct answers (15 minutes).

It is important to test patients to determine their retention and understanding of the material. Many relapsers have severe memory problems associated with Post Acute Withdrawal that prevent them from comprehending or remembering educational information.