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If you have a loved one in your life that has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, then it is likely you have familiarity with the concept of relapse. Addiction is a chronic disease, and like other chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer, relapse unfortunately can be part of the journey to healing. In fact, one 2000 study found that 40 to 60% of people with addiction relapse in their first year of recovery — a number very similar to rates associated with asthma, hypertension, and diabetes. Fortunately, it can be treated. First, however, it’s important to understand what is happening when a relapse occurs.

For many who witness relapse, it can be puzzling why so many people who struggle with substance use disorders constantly fall back into the grips of active addiction even after periods of healing. It is not, however, a failure of willpower. Relapse, as a symptom of the brain disease of addiction, can be explained through brain chemistry

Using drugs and alcohol releases dopamine in the reward pathway of the brain. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, as well as emotional responses.) Healing from addiction literally requires the rewiring of neural pathways — a process that is time-consuming and unpredictable. The best way to avoid relapse is to pursue professional medical and psychological treatment. However, a loved one can assist by providing understanding and support as they navigate the process. 

How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Addiction & Relapse

1. Be supportive.
It is easy to become frustrated when a loved one relapses. Try to remember that it is not a willful decision or a lack of willpower on their part. It’s a symptom of a devastating disease that can be treated.

2. Empathy.
If you can, try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Know that while witnessing a loved one struggle with addiction is painful, it is just as painful — if not more so — for them. Any grace that you can give them as they navigate this process will be appreciated more than you know.

3. Protect your boundaries.
At the same time, be careful not to enable your loved one’s addiction. Identify what boundaries feel safe for you and enforce them. You never know when setting a boundary might be the action that helps your loved one find recovery once and for all.

4. Learn to identify triggers.
One way to help a loved one avoid a future relapse is to be familiar with their triggers. For example, perhaps you might opt to serve non-alcoholic beverages at Thanksgiving this year. Or, allow them to skip Thanksgiving altogether so they can attend a 12-Step meeting on that day. Have an honest conversation with your loved one about what you can do to help provide a safe environment for them.

5. Pursue your own healing.
As a loved one of someone suffering from substance use disorder, you deserve support and healing as well. That might come in the form of attending 12-Step meetings like Al-Anon or CoDA, or even attending treatment yourself. Pursuing your own recovery is truly the best way of supporting a loved one in recovery.

To that end, if you’d like further support and guidance, Acqua Recovery can help you explore how to assist your loved one in attaining a life of recovery. Call or chat with us for more information about our sanctuary for healing in Midway, Utah, and how we help people recover from relapse to find recovery once and for all.

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