Why You Should Have a Relapse Prevention Plan

It’s clear that the ideal time to intervene is when you notice the onset of an alcohol Prelapse – a shift in your mindset that indicates you are working towards a regression back to old habits. However, most people who are starting the process of behavior change are simply trying to prevent a full-blown alcohol relapse.

The problem is that most people go into this process with an all-or-nothing, black-and-white mindset: “I’m either good (not relapsing) or bad (relapsing).” Is it any surprise that this in turn leads to the abstinence-violation effect?

Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE)

This term goes back to Marlatt and Gordon’s model of relapse prevention, way back in 1985. It remains relevant today. It refers to the idea that if we slip or engage in an undesirable behavior, like alcohol abuse, we will use false internal attribution to explain why we did what we did.

For example, when someone in recovery has a slip and drinks just once, they may experience overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt. It is common for someone to think,”I drank because I am a bad person and a failure. I used because I don’t have enough willpower.”

False internal attribution leads to spiraling shame and guilt, which in turn leads most people back to bad habits: “Why bother trying to change? I’ve already thrown away my progress. And I am obviously a bad, weak person.” If someone shame spirals, they risk experiencing a full-blown relapse.

Or, as most people say at that low point, “F*** it.”

Mindfulness as an Empowering Shift

Your use of mindfulness when you notice Prelapse or experience a Lapse can prevent you from spiraling into a full-blown relapse.

Most of my clients appear visibly distressed when I introduce the idea of developing a relapse prevention plan. My guess is that they hear the words “relapse” and “plan,” and that the word “prevention” barely resonates. This is understandable. No one wants to relapse.(“Why are we planning on a relapse? I should just never do it again!”)

Consider the number of times you have been a passenger on an airplane. Regardless of the carrier, the destination, or the class of service you receive, you will hear the same thing before the plane takes off: the safety plan.

No pilot or crew planes on a hazardous landing or crash. No passenger wants to think about crashing. And yet, the message is delivered again and again, to the point where even the occasional traveler zones it out as the flight attendants model the oxygen delivery device. Why? They know the plan by heart. They can see the emergency exit doors. They could probably deliver the safety plan to the passengers themselves.

Mindlessness (in this case, zoning out while flipping through an inflight magazine or listening to music on headphones) is a luxury afforded to those who have already developed a deep and lasting awareness.Have you ever shared a flight with a seatmate who is on the first flight of their life? In general, they are terrified. They nervously stare ahead, focusing on the seat in front of them. Their seatbelt is maximally tightened. They can’t even hear the safety plan announcement because they are envisioning the worst case scenario – a horrific crash. Or they hit the bar hard prior to boarding, and proceed to take a heavy dose of Xanax that their doctor was happy to prescribe them when they identified “fear of flying” as a concern. If that is the case, they are asleep before the plane even takes off. Unfortunately, neither of these processes are mindful.

Planning ahead is something that we do in the event that something deviates from our desired plan. Planning is different from worrying (people who worry, on some level, engage in magical thinking by believing that their worry will prevent the feared outcome). Planning is smart. And that is why you have a relapse prevention plan.

A good alcohol relapse prevention plan also includes a contingency for reaching out to others when we need help. Those people who think they know the plane safety protocol by heart may not realize that they are the kinds of people who freeze up in paralysis during moments of crisis. If they freeze, then they need the help of someone else to get them out safely.

This is also why you will have a support network of people you can reach out to if you are in over your head. There is nothing wrong with asking for help – it takes courage. And that is a plan for success.

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Hi, I'm Sarah, and I'm a counselor who helps high-achieving men learn how to moderate their drinking. I currently offer counseling services and corporate training here at Chicago Compass Counseling. If you're interested, you can read more about me on my about page.