The Five Rules of Recovery and Relapse Prevention

Overcoming an addiction is a long and challenging journey. Patients often believe that the treatment is complete after they have been through detox. It is not quite that simple. Post-rehab treatment is critical. Relapse is possible even years into sobriety. But don’t panic. You are not alone in this fight. 

Relapse has multiple stages, and we can explain and address each. When you feel like giving up, there is hope to reverse the process. Recovery has its own set of evidence-based rules to abide by. There are five of them, and you need to follow them to keep relapse at bay and enjoy an addiction-free life. Let us explore them. 

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What Are the Five Rules of Recovery?

So, there are five rules of recovery to follow if you wish to live a sober life and ensure your rehabilitation is a successful journey toward a better future. Applying these rules will help you to change how you think and interact with the world. You will learn to be honest, not only with others but with yourself, too. You will set and preserve boundaries. You will put yourself first because, ultimately, this path will lead you to you; a healthier and happier you. 

Here are the five rules that will guide your way out of addiction. 

1. Change Your Life So That It’s Easier Not to Use

“If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got” – Henry Ford.

To prevent relapse, you need to change your life. Environmental cues strongly impact addiction relapse and affect the probability of a person using again. If you continue living the same way as before treatment, meet with the same people, and do things the same way, old habits will likely reappear and lead you back to substance abuse. 

You should reject anything that could trigger cravings. It is necessary to maintain sobriety and preserve the healing process. If you link the addiction to friends or partners, you should sever these ties. If family problems drove you to drugs, moving out may be necessary. It could mean going as far as relocating to another city or country – to a place where there are no memories of your life in addiction and no risk of being drawn to old connections. That’s completely OK. The goal is to establish a new life free of association from addiction, one of peace, health, and freedom.

Avoid high-risk situations

High-risk situations refer to a context or an emotional state when a recovering addict is at the highest risk of relapsing. These situations can arise in any number of circumstances. Joyful or difficult.

These events involve intense emotions. Difficult situations might be conflict, job loss, exhaustion, or stress at home or the workplace. Positive events can include a promotion, celebration, or financial gain.

One of the most common high-risk situations is associating with people who use drugs, even when you feel strong in your recovery

In any high-risk situation, the individual thinks it will be only a one-time thing and that the event or activity won’t lead to the downward spiral of relapse. 

It is impossible to prevent such situations because life happens. But you can reduce the risk of relapse if you anticipate them and use rational thinking when considering them. Be honest in assessing your risks and do your best to avoid situations that can lead to a reverse in your recovery. The worst thing you can do is be tempted to test yourself in a high-risk scenario. 

Change negative thinking

Recovering from addiction can be daunting. It brings up self-doubt and fears. Patients may worry that they will not be able to stay clean. They may wonder if the switch to a new lifestyle will make them happy. They might dread leaving behind their old life and perceive doing so as a personal failure. 

Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones is necessary to prevent relapse. View recovery as an opportunity to step back and evaluate your life, make decisions that will benefit you in the long run, and show yourself the love and care you deserve.

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H.A.L.T is an acronym. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. These are all emotions and states that can lead to relapse in recovery

The key is to recognise when you are in one of these states. Be aware that you are vulnerable. By doing this, you can make the necessary adjustments to get yourself to a better physical and emotional place. Then you can make healthier decisions or act on any desires. It reduces the risk of relapse greatly. 

2. Ask For Help and Develop a Recovery Circle

Admitting to having a problem with addiction and asking for help are two of the most important steps a person in recovery can take. 

With stigma and shame surrounding them, those struggling with addiction must find people they trust who love them and cheer on their progress. But this kind of support from family and friends may not be enough to assist in post-addiction issues. 

Sometimes you need to confide in those who have faced the same distress. Sharing with others in recovery can help you validate your experiences and emotions and feel less isolated. 

Self-help groups (peer support)

Self-help groups like A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) and N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous) are effective in preventing relapse. They allow people recovering from addiction to gather, converse and share their stories. 

The members can vocalise their concerns without fear of judgment. They can be open in sharing their struggles and supporting each other. When they do, they realise they are not alone. Others experience the same difficulties. Some have already overcome them with success. This helps patients heal faster and progress further, ensuring a drug-free future. 

Pros of peer support

Joining a self-help group during recovery from addiction has many benefits, including the following:

  • It offers a sense of belonging and shared assistance;
  • It provides the opportunity to make new connections, discuss ideas, and share stories.
  • It can broaden one’s horizons to open up new possibilities;
  • Being around supportive, like-minded people can help keep you motivated and ‘check’ you when you are vulnerable to relapse. 
Cons of peer support

Although highly beneficial in many ways, self-help groups can have drawbacks, such as:

  • The risk of groupthink: making decisions as a group, which can result in unchallenged, poor-quality decision-making;
  • Members can affect each other positively or negatively. There is a risk of becoming dependent on one particular member. It can lead to a less autonomous journey and may stunt personal growth;
  • Overwhelm: it can be difficult to hear other people’s struggles and provide support when you are at your own limit of coping. 

3. Be Completely Honest

Being honest can be difficult for those recovering from addiction. You may have become accustomed to lying to protect your loved ones or conceal your addiction at work. Lying has likely become a habit for you to avoid awkward conversations or appearing weak. 

But honesty is essential for a successful recovery and if you want to become the best version of yourself. 

When recovering from addiction, honesty is the best policy. It is the only way to survive tough times without falling back into old patterns. Speak openly about your struggles. Ask for support.

But what does it mean to be honest? 

Honesty means admitting where you stand in the recovery process, how strong the temptation to use drugs is, and what you can do to avoid relapse. It is necessary to express how challenging it can be and to ask for help if needed. 

4. Practice Self-Care

The road to recovery is a process of healing: both physically and mentally. One of the ways of doing this is to practice self-care. You learn how to love yourself in a healthy manner. 

Addiction comes from the lack of joy or happiness in someone’s life. The addict cannot experience positive emotions without drugs or alcohol. Sometimes people use drugs as a reward or a way to unwind and relax. It all comes down to missing positive reinforcement. Self-care removes the need to find pleasure and comfort in negative coping strategies, such as using drugs or alcohol. 

So, what exactly is self-care?

Self-care is very personal. It’s the little things a person does to look after their well-being. At its most basic, self-care is ensuring you eat and sleep well when struggling with how you feel. It may be taking time out when you feel overwhelmed or engaging in an activity that makes you feel good. What works for one person may not work for the next. In order to practice self-care, you must have developed self-awareness and be able to identify when your body and mind need a time out from the demands of your world. 

Therapy and inner dialogue can help you develop self-awareness. Then start giving it to yourself one step at a time. Reward yourself with small acts of self-care. Focus on creating a healthy routine and remain faithful to it. Once you reach self-fulfilment, the urge for drugs will subside.

5. Don’t Bend the Rules

When you quit using drugs, you are vulnerable to cravings and triggers to use again. It’s common for people in recovery to start believing it is OK to rewrite the rules of recovery. You might tell yourself that it’s fine to use “just this once” to celebrate a special occasion or to show that you can put the drugs down again. It’s never a good plan to test yourself this way or think you’re immune to relapsing. Doing so puts you at high risk of slipping back into addiction. 

To keep yourself clean long-term, you should be strict regarding your rehab goals. Thinking that occasional use is permissible can bring about relapse even after years of sobriety. It is crucial to stay aware of it and push away any temptation to drink or take a drug. 

What Are the Stages of Relapse?

Understanding how the relapse process works is essential to prevent it from happening to you. It does not happen overnight. It takes weeks or years before a person acts on the thought of using again. The quicker you recognise signs that you are about to relapse, the easier it will be to turn things around. Take steps forwards to prevent it. 

Generally speaking, the relapse process follows the three stages described below.

Stage 1: Mental Relapse

A mental relapse sets in when a patient begins to contemplate using again. It differs from simply reminiscing how life used to be when addiction was still there. Thinking back on the past and anticipating the future without drugs is normal and is part of post-treatment therapy. It is not quite the same as craving and wanting to use again. In a mental relapse, the person is trying to justify why it would not be so bad to go back to using and will try to weigh the pros and cons in their mind. 

They may begin to believe that swapping one substance with another will solve their addiction problem. They might think using just twice a month is not a big deal. And they could even convince themselves use a bit while on vacation is an acceptable treat. 

If you can spot the warning signs of a mental relapse early on, you can take action and prevent it. Warning signs to watch out for include the following:

  • Contemplating under which conditions it would be acceptable to start using again:
  • Minimising the detrimental effects of addiction while glorifying substance use;
  • Taking comfort in the idea that you will find a way to bring drugs back into your life again;
  • Experiencing a craving to get yourself something to use.

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Stage 2: Emotional Relapse

Patients may experience an emotional relapse if they start doubting their progress and disconnect from their recovery programme. 

They will become angry and depressed, unaware they are about to relapse. The H.A.L.T. method is used to assess their needs – whether they need a better diet, more sleep, or just a change of scenery. 

When a person feels like they are slipping back into old habits, they must take action and give themselves extra love and attention – anything that will get them back on track emotionally. This timely intervention can help them resist the temptation to drown out their worries with substances. 

Some warning signs that someone may be undergoing an emotional relapse include, but are not limited to:

  • Feeling depressed or apathetic regarding the recovery process;
  • Ceasing to attend therapy or engaging in self-help groups;
  • Withdrawing from the support system; 
  • Neglecting basic practices of self-care;
  • Disregarding the guidelines for living a healthy lifestyle.

STAGE 3: Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is a process that happens when someone in recovery begins using again. As this stage of relapse progresses, returning to the recovery process becomes challenging. 

If a person reaches the final stage of relapse, they may find it difficult to turn back.

Physical relapse occurs instantly when the patient gets an opportunity to use something because they have given themselves permission to use again during the mental and emotional stages of relapse.

The longer a patient remains in those states without obtaining the right tools to help them get back on track with their recovery, the more likely physical relapse becomes. 

It is, therefore, essential to identify the early signs of mental and emotional relapse and deal with them promptly. 

the five rules of recovery


What Are the 5 W’s in Recovery?

When dealing with a relapse, it is essential to ask the five W’s – Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Being honest when addressing these questions will assist you in learning from the experience and ensuring that it does not happen again.

What Are the Rules of Recovery?

1. Change your life
2. Be honest
3. Ask for help
4. Practice self-care
5. Do not bend the rules.

What Are the 5 Theories of Addiction?

1. Pain-avoidance 
2. Pleasure-seeking
3. Cravings 
4. Habit
5. Impulsivity.

What Are the 7 R’s of Recovery?

1. Regroup
2. Reach out
3. Recommit to recovery 
4. Realise where you went wrong 
5. Redouble your efforts 
6.Reach for more resources 
7. Redirect your recovery.


  1. Marlatt, G.A. (1996) “Taxonomy of high-risk situations for alcohol relapse: evolution and development of addiction” 91(12s1), pp. 37–50. Available at:
  2. Vederhus, J.-K. and Kristensen, Ø. (2006) “High effectiveness of self-help programs after drug addiction therapy,” BMC Psychiatry, 6(1). Available at:
  3. Recovering from relapse: The 7 R’s (2014). Available at:
  4. Newton TF, De La Garza R 2nd, Kalechstein AD, Tziortzis D, Jacobsen CA. Theories of addiction: methamphetamine users’ explanations for continuing drug use and relapse. Am J Addict. 2009 Jul-Aug;18(4):294-300. doi: 10.1080/10550490902925920. PMID: 19444733; PMCID: PMC3341929.
  5. Robb-Dover, K. (2021) “What Explains Addiction? Theories of Drug Abuse,” FHE Health – Addiction & Mental Health Care, 21 December. Available at:

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