Why do Alcoholics Relapse

Why do Alcoholics Relapse?

Alcoholism is a burdensome disease that can affect a person physically, mentally, and socially. Despite the setbacks, treatment is readily available for those who wish to make a change. 

The problem, however, is the relapse that usually comes after it. 

According to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), about 90% of alcoholics experience at least one relapse in 4 years following treatment. Here are some reasons why, after years of sobriety, alcoholics tend to relapse again: 

Alcohol Cravings Can be very strong

They crave for it.

Cravings do not only apply to food, but they may apply to alcohol as well. According to an NIAAA article, alcohol craving can be likened to hunger – where a person can experience withdrawal symptoms if he is not able to satisfy it. The thought of getting that ‘alcohol high’ once again is one of the many reasons why alcoholics find themselves chugging a bottle at the end of the day. 

The body responds to it.

According to several studies, the sight of alcohol is enough to send the addict into a relapse spiral. Seeing a bottle can make their mouths water – and such can give them such a strong desire to drink that they may throw years of sobriety out of the window. 

They have poor control. 

Alcoholics are known to have poor control – that’s why they got addicted in the first place. And even though they get treated for this condition, this poor impulse control is bound to get them hooked once again. 

The problem with poor impulse control goes two ways. First, the person is unable to resist one drink. He might be invited to do so in a party of what. He may be able to stop after this – and it’s good because the eventual problem of alcoholism can be averted. However, if he is unable to stop consuming alcohol after one serving – another aspect of poor impulse control – relapse is most likely to happen. 

They experience “HALT”.

A well-known acronym amongst alcoholics and healthcare professionals alike is HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. According to experts, having any (or a combination) of these emotions can trigger a sober drinker to take up alcoholism once again. 

Hunger is not just a mere physical need, it can be an emotional one as well. The hunger for support – when lacking – can lead to destructive behaviors such as relapse.

Anger is another emotion that may affect a person’s sobriety. If he is unable to release his pent-up anger healthily, he may turn to the bottle to do so.

The same can be said with loneliness – most alcoholics drink because of ‘feeling alone’ in the first place. Without a trusty companion to be with him and cheer him up, he may drink once again. 

Tiredness, and the desire to sleep well – may prod a sober person to consume alcohol because it makes him ‘sleepy’. As such, it is important to ensure that an ex-alcoholic is free from tiredness – not only physically, but emotionally and mentally as well. 

They are depressed. 

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by a constant feeling of sadness – and a loss of interest in activities and hobbies that a person once found desirable. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness, tiredness, restlessness, and recurrent thoughts of suicide, to name a few.

According to an article by Dr. Mark Jacob, as much as 30 to 50% of alcoholics suffer from depression. This may be a good reason why some became alcoholics in the first place. 

Depression may limit the person’s capacity to say no to alcohol. At the same time, drinking may be the individual’s way to ‘numb’ himself from depressive symptoms. Because of these factors, a depressed alcoholic may be more likely to suffer from relapse – even after intensive treatment. 

They are ‘pressured’.

Peer pressure is a strong factor behind the development of alcohol addiction in some people. Sadly, this can lead to a relapse as well. 

Family, friends, and workmates may not know it, but they can push an alcoholic to relapse – even though they did not mean to do so. For example, gatherings such as birthdays and weddings usually come with booze – and these individuals may coax the person to just have ‘one drink’. On the other hand, the alcoholic may feel ‘out of place’ if he does not drink with the other guests. 

While one drink might not seem harmful, it can send an addict back to the path of alcoholism. As has been mentioned, alcoholics have poor control – and this one bottle at a party may lead to binge drinking once again. 

They may have low levels of the hormone Serotonin.

Serotonin is a hormone that is produced in abundance following alcohol intake. It makes one ‘feel good,’ which explains why alcoholics find themselves drinking and drinking all over again – that is to get the ‘high’ that serotonin brings.

It goes to show that while a person’s mental status can bring about relapse, physical changes in the brain may lead to this as well. Studies in mice show that those who have low levels of serotonin have a higher tendency to abuse alcohol since the substance can increase serotonin – the feel-good hormone – in the brain. 

They were not treated for it. 

Even after years of being sober, alcoholics may find themselves chugging the bottle once again. This is especially the case in people who were not treated formally – meaning they stopped drinking on their own, sans the help of a healthcare professional or a treatment facility. While this is laudable, these individuals are more likely to relapse, according to a study by Moos and Moos.

They are not receiving medications that may help prevent relapse.

Another boon to not having formal treatment is the fact that you may not be prescribed with drugs that can help curb relapse. Alcoholics who are more likely to drink again may be given drugs alongside other psychotherapeutic interventions. 

Medications that may help prevent relapse include Naltrexone, which can lessen the pleasurable effects of alcohol. Another is Acamprosate, which may help curb the effects of abstinence and withdrawal. 

Wrapping it up

Relapse is a real consequence to many alcoholics, whether they were treated medically or not. Because it may be driven by the factors stated above, it is best to keep a newly-sober alcoholic safe from these situations. 


Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)

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