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The Problem of Drug Addiction Relapse

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 15th 2012

The Problem of Drug Addiction RelapseWhile the cause of the death of the popular singer, Whitney Houston, remains unclear, there is a lot of speculation that she had a relapse into the drug addiction that plagued her life in recent years. Addiction carries with it the danger of relapse. Relapse is a common, and, sometimes, tragic problem for those fighting to remain free of substance abuse.

The rate of relapse into alcohol and substance abuse varies from 30 to 70% according to addiction specialist, Stephen Gilman, MD. According to Dr. Gilman, the likelihood of relapse depends on the particular substance being abused, as well as risk factors particular to the life of the individual who is in recovery. He also states that anyone can fall into relapse.

There are a variety of factors that can threaten the sobriety of any former drug and alcohol abuser. For example, psychiatric disorders such as Bipolar, Attention Deficit other mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, are potential triggers for a return to an addiction. Stress, anger, loss and other difficult life events also create a scenario that lends itself to once again lead a person down the same path.

Many mental health and addiction experts view addiction as a disease of the brain. As with any chronic disease, there is no cure and, therefore, symptoms ebb and flow. This is why they use the disease model term, "relapse," as with any disease.

Whether or not addiction is viewed as a disease, it does affect the brain and it's functioning in ways that can cause permanent damage and that certainly distorts thinking as well as behavior. There are pleasure centers in the brain that are stimulated by drugs and alcohol. Consequently, the brain demands more of the substance in order to return to those pleasurable feelings. If sex is thought of this way, then, the drive to gain more pleasure can be understood as the brain wanting stimulation all over again. However, with drugs, the brain cells begin to crave greater amounts of the substance just to regain the initially experienced pleasure. Brain cells remember that pleasure and, even after recovery from addiction, they can be triggered into craving with full intensity and this is why and how relapse occurs. The same explanation applies to those who are attempting to end their addiction to cigarettes.

It is for all of these reasons that it is important for those with a history of drug abuse make use of either/or psychotherapy, group therapy, family therapy and, where appropriate, medications that help stabilize depressive and bipolar symptoms.  Added to these options, are many self help groups that are available in the community. If you fear that you are in danger of, or are relapsing, immediately seek help.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
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RELAPS IS REAL - Peter Patnaude - Feb 18th 2012

As the article by  Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.stated I seem to have at least two of the factors in common with the risks mentioned. I constantly remind myself once an addict always an addict. I have a short period of recovery one month and one week from Nicotine arguably the most addictive drug on the face of the earth. Plus I have bipolar disorder for which I am being treated. Both are in remission at this point. I am very weary knowing what was stated in the article, about relapse. At this point I am taking my meds and "never taking another puff". One day at time for the rest of my life.

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