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Relapse Prevention Planning as Part of Behavioral Health Recovery

SC CW blogpost Relapse Prevention Planning as Part of Behavioral Health Recovery Benefiting from psychotherapy involves hard work, both in sessions and in the real world. Being committed to making positive behavioral changes, using strategic behavioral and cognitive interventions, and being vulnerable to in depth exploration of past relationships, traumas, and decisions made from a place of anxiety, sadness, and misunderstanding are components of the hard work that, much of the time, pays off in as patients can experience drastic relief from their symptoms. Patients are able to maintain their gains when they work with their therapist to develop a relapse prevention plan for behavioral health symptoms that is individually tailored to patients’ specific behavioral and symptomatic concerns. It’s important to remember that recovery from mental illness and addiction is a life long process that requires lifestyle changes and maintenance behavior.

A relapse cannot be contained to one single event. A relapse is an ongoing process that is experienced by a person in recovery and marked by significant red flags or warning signs. These warning signs can cause a person to return to their old patterns of behavior where managing their symptoms/behaviors is not a priority. A relapse prevention plan is a great tool that can be used to recognize and manage the warning signs of relapse and sustain a healthy lifestyle.

Some people will struggle with relapses for the entirety of their life. That does not mean they have failed or are not still actively pursuing their recovery. Relapse can be caused by a number of different factors, such as stress, money problems, relationship issues, or certain sights, smells, or other trigger.

A thorough relapse prevention plan will help to minimize the damage of a relapse by:
  • identifying the specific symptoms and behaviors causing impairments in a patient’s daily life;
  • articulating the nuances of the warning signs and triggers to symptoms and behaviors that are distressing;
  • developing a meaningful list of social supports and adjunctive resources;
  • highlighting the coping skills that work; and
  • identifying the non-negotiables that mark a requirement to seek immediately help.

Although every person’s strategy will be different, the following five components should be a part of any solid relapse prevention plan.

1. Identify the Specific Symptoms and Behaviors

Recognizing your patterns can help you pinpoint the problem behaviors and symptoms are emerging or are becoming out of control. It is also helpful to make a list of times in the past when you relapsed and reflect on the situations or events led to those instances. This self-understanding can be used as a valuable tool to fight relapse.

2. Warning Signs and Triggers

The warning signs of relapse often come well before a person falls back into old habits and behaviors, so it’s important to be able to recognize the red flags. Perhaps high levels of stress at work lead you to stop attending your favorite workout class, or maybe problems with your spouse seem unmanageable, so your tendency is to rely on flirting on social media websites. Identifying your warning signs early on gives you time to get help before things spiral out of control.

A “trigger” is an experience, event, or even a person that causes you to stray from a balanced life back in to chaos. Every person will have different triggers, but developing an awareness of your own and making a list of them can help you actively avoid them on a daily basis. Some examples of triggers might be visiting a place where you were abused, hanging out with a person who is friend with your ex-husband, or even attending a holiday party where alcohol is present. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to avoid these situations, so it’s wise to make a plan of specific strategies that will help you manage each of the triggers on your list. Your therapist can help you with this.

3. Social Supports and Resources

Although this may sound pessimistic, the truth is you don’t want to be stuck without a plan if relapse does happen. Write out a step-by-step plan detailing what you will do if you relapse. You may also want to make a list of people you can talk to if you start to feel yourself falling back into old habits and thought patterns. These people should be individuals you trust and that are familiar with your goals, such as family members and people from your support groups. Review your plan for relapse with them and discuss how they can help get you back on track if you do relapse. This could require them to help you get emergency psychiatric services at a hospital or give you a ride to your next therapy or support group session. Just make sure they are okay with providing that support if needed.

A relapse prevention plan should also include professionals or agencies to contact to provide immediate help to resolve a crisis, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

4. Coping Skills

Coping skills are the responses and behaviors one adopts to deal with difficult situations. Coping strategies come in many forms. Think of when you were last upset or angry. How did you respond to that emotion? Did you go for a walk? Listen to music? Draw, color or paint? Mediate? Go to the Gym? Those are healthy coping strategies that individuals choose to practice to move forward for their own self-care and wellness purposes. Identifying the coping skills that work for you are all healthy distractions that will keep your mind off of the intensity of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and cravings, and to help you develop relationships with people who want to actively support you.

5. The Non-Negotiables

Certain symptoms and behaviors are hallmarks that an individual is in crisis and/or is at imminent risk to being a danger to themselves or others. Having a suicide plan, engaging in illegal behaviors, and self-harming (cutting, burning, hitting, etc.), amongst many others, are behaviors that must be discussed and planned for in advance of a recurrence.

Written by Christal Whitaker, MA, LMFT, On Jan 28, 2019

Christal utilizes a holistic approach to therapy, offering her clients a safe and open space to help them identify various parts in their lives which are lacking integration… View full profile