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Roger Watts, Ph.D.Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.
A blog about alcohol and other drug addictions and how to obtain lifelong recovery.

Alcoholism Relapse Part 2: Managing High-Risk Situations

Roger P. Watts, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 9th 2012

Becoming involved with high-risk situations while in recovery from alcoholism is the number one cause of relapse (see "Alcoholism Relapse Part 1: High-Risk Situations"). While the task of avoiding them seems daunting at times, a recovering person can use a number of painless ways to manage high-risk situations.

colorful sunset1. Like the real estate agent who knows that "location, location, location" are the three top requirements for a successful house sale, recovering people understand that "planning, planning, planning" are the top three ways to avoid the entrapment of a high-risk situation that can threaten recovery. Planning the schedule for the day ahead of time - who to see, where to go, how to get there, when to arrive and leave - is essential for managing day-to-day activities that can either support or threaten recovery. Many people find a written plan is the best because when the task is written down it has a sense of permanence and importance that must be honored.

2. Writing down a list of high-risk situations and carrying it with you every day can go a long way toward helping to avoid them. Like planning, the written expression of a high-risk situation has to effect of subduing its importance and enhancing awareness of it. Sometimes a recovering person will share this list with a trusted friend who can help them monitor their involvement with the high-risk situation.

3. Falling into a high-risk situation is sometimes unavoidable. When a person finds themselves in one of these situations, it is important to remove themselves from the situation as quickly as possible. Riding in a car with people who are drinking or using other drugs, being at a party when someone brings out the alcohol or drugs, or bumping into a person who was an old drug connection in a supermarket are all people and places that represent a high-risk for using. Every attempt must be made to quickly leave the situation and seek a safe haven. As awkward as this procedure may be, it will work only if a person does not try to convince themselves they are helpless or make excuses for being there.

4. Not going to bars, parties, clubs, concerts or other venue where there is a likelihood alcohol will be served is a sure-fire solution to avoid being trapped in a high-risk situation. Painful at it may seem at the time to not go to these places one used to enjoy, the pain is much less than what using alcohol or other drugs will cause. Often, recovering people will go to these places with other people who are also in recovery to get support for remaining clean and sober during the event.

5. Categorically refusing to be with people who are using alcohol or other drugs in your presence is also a way to avoid relapse. This is difficult for many people because they do not want to lose contact with old friends, but if those friends are using alcohol or other drugs it is usually just a matter of time before a recovering person just falls into line with them. Regrettably, choices usually have to be made among those people a person associates with and one cannot be with recovering people and using people at the same time.

6. Talking openly and honestly about high-risk situations before they occur takes their alluring power away. The more talk there is about known situations that can threaten recovery the greater the likelihood is that the situation can be disarmed before it occurs. A person can learn how to cope by talking with others about these situations that are very common. Counseling and 12 Step programs are specifically designed to encourage that kind of sharing.

7. Having a strong support network of recovering people can help thwart the power of impending high-risk situations. Knowing, in advance, that there is the chance this situation will occur usually allows for time to contact others in a support network who can give advice and even join with a person to re-direct their attention away from the negative situation.

8. There is also a way to use support people in a practical sense. Commonly, situations arise that are threats, but those threats can be minimized if one or more support people actually go through the situation with a recovering person. Having someone to accompany the recovering person to help them face an unavoidable situation - holiday celebrations, anniversaries, weddings, etc. - can go a long way toward protecting them from getting engrossed so far into the situation that they use alcohol or other drugs to cope.

9. Some people print out the high situations that threaten their recovery and place them on bathroom mirrors, refrigerators, or other private places to help remind them of the need to plan for the situations that may arise. This knowledge of which situations can injure a recovering person goes a long way toward avoiding them. Adding to the list occasionally as new situations arise also helps.

10. Always have alternative activities available in the event that plans fall through or there is a need to immediately escape from an unexpected high-risk situation. These activities can be based on fundamentally positive things that provide a reward for avoiding the situation that is a challenge.

Despite all of these plans and options, the single most important thing to do is remain positive. Many people have a personal saying that affirms their recovery and if they are able to repeat that to themselves when confronted with a high-risk situation, the power of the affirmation can usually carry the day. "This too shall pass," is an old 12-Step affirmation that frequently helps people pass through the moment of the situations that arise. Knowing that a person can get through the situation without using and that they will feel much better about themselves because they avoided the danger successfully also helps a person in recovery stay in recovery.


Roger P. Watts, Ph.D.

Dr. Roger P. Watts, Ph.D., a psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, operates and currently provides substance abuse counseling to dozens of alcoholics and addicts. He has 23 years experience delivering health care to hundreds of patients through individual, group, and online counseling services. He has been in recovery himself for 24 years. He lives and works in Saint Paul MN, and can be reached at

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