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Relapse Prevention 2

Last week, we shared part one of a series on relapse prevention, based on Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery by Steven M. Melemis. It focused on the three stages of relapse: emotional, mental, and physical. To quickly recap, emotional relapse is when a person neglects personal care and the work required to stay sober. Mental relapse follows and consists of the “war within the head,” wherein the addict battles cravings. Finally, the physical relapse consists of breaking down and taking that drink or drug. Now that we know what we’re working with, we’re going to focus on the steps to avoid relapse this week. Melemis groups these steps under his “five rules of recovery.”

Rule 1: Change Your Life

There is a saying familiar to those who spend time in the rooms: “the only thing you have to change is everything.” That might be a bit of an overstatement, but it drives home the idea well. Melemis relates an anecdote about addicts coming to rehab and “wanting their old life back.” Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way. That old life was the soil from which addiction grew, and recovery is about moving forward. We need to change our negative thinking, ditch the people, places, and things that we came to associate with our using, and learn to live a new life. This sounds pretty overwhelming, and it is. Not to worry, however, as the rest of the rules will help cover that.

Rule 2: Be Completely Honest

After spending years in active addiction, lying becomes second nature. We have to lie to get our drug of choice, hide our use, and get out of the trouble we cause. However, most of all, we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that we got this, that the next time will be the last, that we’re only going to have one. Yet, 12-step programs champion rigorous honesty and say we are only as sick as our secrets. Melemis lists dishonesty as a sign of emotional relapse. It’s old behavior – remember that we’re working on moving forward – and it’s a sure way to get us drinking and drugging again.

Rule 3: Ask for Help

Addicts and alcoholics have as much of a difficult time with this as any other step but asking for help is essential. Therapists and counselors, 12 step meetings and other self-help groups, peers in a sober support network…there are plenty of people to help with the formidable task of staying sober. They help to keep us accountable, they help us see a new perspective on what is going on in our lives, and they support us when it all seems too overwhelming. We can’t do this alone and, luckily, we don’t have to.

Rule 4: Practice Self-Care

Melemis calls this “one of the most overlooked aspects of recovery.” Once we get sober, it’s so easy to push ourselves too hard as we try to “make up for the lost time.” However, this reaction consists of dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. Both, as Melemis states, are triggers for relapse. We must learn to stop being so “ruthlessly critical” of ourselves. We also need to learn to allow ourselves to relax and make it a daily habit. Mindfulness meditation and exercising with the goal of breaking a sweat and having fun are two methods I’ve found to be particularly useful.

Rule 5: Don’t Bend the Rules

Failure to adhere to this rule is almost guaranteeing an emotional relapse. This is where we start to hear things like, “Well, my problem was with heroin. I can drink or smoke weed without any trouble.” This is where we start lying to ourselves again, telling ourselves that we got this. I’m not suggesting that our needs or our plans of action won’t evolve as we mature in sobriety. But these are some basic principles that are unalterable.

These rules will seem overwhelming and impossible to follow to some of us. Others will see them and think, “Great! I can handle these on my own, no problem.” Remember, though, rule #3. We don’t have to do this alone. Furthermore, because of the biases in our thinking, we can’t do it alone. However, with help, it can be done. If your habits have become too much for you to handle, please consider professional help. Ocean Recovery has been helping individuals struggling with addiction, eating disorders, and substance abuse since 2002. Reach out to us today and start building your foundation for hope.


Ocean Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial policy.

1. Melemis SM. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale J Biol Med. 2015;88(3):325-332.

Last medically reviewed August 2, 2022.