How To Develop A Relapse Prevention Plan

RP_CENAPSBy Terence T. Gorski
September 25, 1989, Original Publication  

Introduction, December 31, 2013: People who relapse aren’t suddenly taken drunk.  Most experience progressive warning signs that reactivate denial and cause so much pain that self-medication with alcohol or drugs seems like a good idea.  This is not a conscious process.  These warning signs develop automatically and unconsciously.  Since most recovering people have never been taught how to identify and manage relapse warning signs, they don’t notice them until the pain becomes too severe to ignore.

Relapse prevention therapy (RPT) was originally developed for use with chemically dependent people. Over the past decades it has been used extensively with other self-defeating repetitive behaviors and behavioral addictions. Dr. Alan Marlatt developed a cognitive-behavioral model of relapse prevention. At the same time Terence T. Gorski developed a nine-step relapse prevention model that closely paralleled Marlatt’s work. It was different in that it focused more heavily upon early warning sign of relapse, a more user-friendly cognitive restructuring model for relapse warning signs and high risk situations. The relapse prevention workbooks were widely used because they were effective in counseling settings. They were developed and revised with the extensive feedback from addiction professionals and recovering people. The characteristics of an effective treatment manual are described in Treatment Manuals That Work. The Relapse Prevention Workbooks were also popular because they were part of a series of workbooks that shared the same no-nonsense language and the same core cognitive restructuring process. Gorski’s model was chosen by SAMHSA as the basis of Tap 19: Relapse Prevention with Chemically Dependent Criminal Offenders, Counselor’s Manual and the basic manual has been translated in over seven languages.

There are nine steps in learning to recognize and stop the early warning signs of relapse.

Step 1:  Stabilization
Step 2:  Assessment
Step 3:  Relapse Education
Step 4:  Warning Sign Identification
Step 5:  Warning Sign Management & Coping Strategies
Step 6:  Recovery Planning
Step 7:  Inventory Training
Step 8:  Family Involvement

Step 9:  Follow-UP

The application of some of these steps can be illustrated by reading the story of Jake, a 23 year-old chronic relapser on the following pages.

Step 1:  Stabilization

Relapse prevention planning probably won’t work unless the relapser is sober and in control of themselves.  Detoxification and a few good days of sobriety are needed in order to make relapse prevention planning work.  Remember that many patients who relapse are toxic.  Even though sober they have difficulty thinking clearly, remembering things and managing their feelings and emotions.  These symptoms get worse when the person is under high stress or is isolated from people to talk to about the problems of staying sober.  To surface intense therapy issues with someone who has a toxic brain can increase rather than decrease the risk of relapse.  In early abstinence go slow and focus on basics.  The key question is “What do you need to do to not drink today?”

Step 2:  Assessment

The assessment process is designed to identify the recurrent pattern of problems that caused past relapses and resolve the pain associated with those problems. This is accomplished by reconstructing the presenting problems, the life history, the alcohol and drug use history and the recovery relapse history.

By reconstructing the presenting problems the here and now issues that pose an immediate threat to sobriety can be identified and crisis plans developed to resolve those issues.

The life history explores each developmental life period including childhood, grammar school, high school, college, military, adult work history, adult friendship history, and adult intimate relationship history.  Reviewing the life history can surface painful unresolved memories.  It’s important to go slow and talk about the feelings that accompany these memories.

Once the life history is reviewed, a detailed alcohol and drug use history is reconstructed.  This is be done by reviewing each life period and asking four questions: (1) How much alcohol or drugs did you use?  (2) How often did you use it?  (3) What did you want alcohol and drug use to accomplish? and  (4) What were the real consequences, positive and negative, of your use? In other words, did the booze and drugs do for you what you wanted it to do during each period of your life?

Finally, the recovery and relapse history is reconstructed. Starting with the first serious attempt at sobriety each period of abstinence and chemical use is carefully explored.  The major goal is to find out what happened during each period of abstinence that set the stage for relapse.  This is often difficult because most relapsers are preoccupied with their drinking and drugging and resist thinking or talking about what happened during periods of abstinence.

Comprehensive assessments have shown that most relapsers get sober, encounter the same recurring pattern of problems, and use those problems to justify the next relapse.  As one person put it “It is not one thing after the other, it is the same thing over and over again!”

A 23 year old relapser named Jake reported drinking about a six-pack of beer every Friday and Saturday night during high school.  He did it in order to feel like he was part of the group, relax and have fun.  at that stage in his addiction the beer did exactly what he wanted it to do.

That all changed when Jake left school and went to work as a salesman.  He had to perform in a high-pressure environment and felt stressed.  The other salesmen were competitive and no matter what he did they wouldn’t let him belong.  He began drinking bourbon every night to deal with the stress.  He wanted to feel relaxed so he could cope better at work.  He consistently drank too much and woke up with terrible hangovers that caused new problems with his job.

Every time Jake would attempt to stop drinking he would feel isolated and alone and become overwhelmed by the stress of his job.  Even when with others at Twelve Step Meetings he felt like he didn’t belong and couldn’t fit in.  As the stress grew he began to think “If this is sobriety who needs it?”  Each relapse was related with his inability to deal with job related pressures.

By comparing the life history, the alcohol and drug use history, and the recovery relapse history Jake could see in a dramatic way the recurrent problems that caused him to relapse. The two major issues were (1) the need to drink in order to feel like he belonged and (2) the need to drink in order to cope with stress.

It wasn’t surprising that Jake discovered that during every past period of abstinence he became isolated, lonely and depressed.  The longer he stayed sober the worse it got.  The stress built up until he felt that if he didn’t take a drink to relax he would go crazy or collapse.

Step 3:  Relapse Education

Relapsers need to learn about the relapse process and how to manage it.  It’s not a bad idea to get their family and Twelve Step Sponsors involved.  The education needs to reinforce four major messages:  First, relapse is a normal and natural part of recovery from chemical dependence.  There is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.  Second, people are not suddenly taken drunk.  There a progressive patterns of warning signs that set them up to use again.  These warning signs can be identified and recognized while sober.  Third, once identified recovering people can learn to manage the relapse warning signs while sober. And Fourth, there is hope.  A new counseling procedure called relapse prevention therapy can teach recovering people how to recognize and manage warning signs so a return to chemical use becomes unnecessary.

When Jake entered relapse prevention therapy he felt demoralized and hopeless.  That began to change when he heard his first lecture that described the typical warning signs that precede relapse to chemical use.  He felt like someone had read his mail.  “Since someone understand what causes me to get drunk,” he thought, “perhaps they know what to do in order to stay sober.

Step 4:  Warning Sign Identification

Relapsers need to identify the problems that caused relapse.  The goal is to write a list of personal warning signs that lead them from stable recovery back to chemical use.

There is seldom just one warning sign.  Usually a series of warning signs build one on the other to create relapse.  It’s the cumulative affect that wears them down. The final warning sign is simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Unfortunately many of relapsers think it’s the last warning sign that did it. As a result they don’t look for the earlier and more subtle warning signs that set the stage for the final disaster.

When Jake first came into relapse prevention therapy he thought that he was crazy.  “I can’t understand it,” he told his counselor, “Everything was going fine and suddenly, for no reason at all I started to overreact to things.  I’d get confused, make stupid mistakes and then not know what to do to fix it.  I got so stressed out that I got drunk over it.”

Jake, like most relapsers, didn’t know what his early relapse warning signs were and as a result didn’t recognize the problems until it was too late.  A number of procedures are used to help recovering people identify the early warning signs relapse.

Searching for your own warning signs

Most people start by reviewing and discussing The Phases And Warning Signs Of Relapse (available from Independence Press, PO Box HE, Independence MO 64055, 1-800-767-8181).  This warning sign list describes the typical sequence of problems that lead from stable recovery to alcohol and drug use.  By reading and discussing these warning signs relapsers develop a new way of thinking about the things that happened during past periods of abstinence that set them up to use.  They learn new words with which to describe their past experiences.

After reading the warning signs they develop an initial warning sign list by selecting five of the warning signs that they can identify with.  These warning signs become a starting point for warning sign analysis.  Since most relapsers don’t know what their warning signs are they need to be guided through a process that will uncover them.  The relapser is asked to take each of the five warning signs and tell a story about a time when they experienced that warning sign in the past while sober.  They tell these stories both to their therapist and to their therapy group.  The goal is to look for hidden warning signs that are reflected in the story.

Jake’s Relapse Warning Signs

Jake, for example, identified with the warning sign “Tendency toward loneliness.”  He told a story about a time when he was sober and all alone in the house because his wife had left with the children.  “I felt so lonely and abandoned, he said.  I couldn’t understand why she would walk out just because we had a fight.  She should be able to handle it better than she does.”

The group began asking questions and it turned out that Jake had frequent arguments with his wife that were caused by his grouchiness because of problems on the job.  It turned out that these family arguments were a critical warning sign that occurred before most relapses.  Jake had never considered his marriage to be a problem, and as a result never thought of getting marriage counseling.

Jake had now identified three warning signs:  (1) the need to drink in order to feel like he belonged, (2) the need to drink in order to cope with stress, and (3) the need to drink in order to cope with marital problems.  In order to be effectively managed each of these warning would need to be further clarified.

I then had Jake to write these three warning signs using a standard format and identify the irrational thoughts, unmanageable feelings and self-defeating behavior that accompanied each.  He wrote:

(1) I know I am in trouble with my recovery when I start feeling lonely and unable to fit in with other people;

When this happens I tend to think that I am no good and nobody could ever care about me.
When this happens I tend to feel lonely, angry and afraid.
When this happens I have an urge to hide myself away so I don’t have to talk with anyone.

(2) I know I am in trouble with my recovery when I feel unable to cope with high levels of job-related stress;

When this happens I tend to think that I need to try harder in order to get things under control or else I will be a failure.
When this happens I tend to feel humiliated and embarrassed.
When this happens I have an urge to  drive myself to keep working even thought I know I need to rest.

(3) I know I am in trouble with my recovery when I irrationally angry at my wife.

When this happens I tend to think that I’m a terrible person for treating her that way, but a part of me believes she deserves it.
When this I happens I tend to feel angry and ashamed.
When this happens I have un urge to forget that the incident ever happened, put it behind us and get on with our marriage.

Step 5:  Warning Sign Management & Coping Strategies

With this detailed description of the relapse warning signs Jake was ready to move on to the fifth step of relapse prevention planning, warning sign management.  Understanding the warning signs is not enough.  We need to learn how to manage them without resorting to alcohol or drug use.  This means learning nonchemical problem solving strategies that help us to identify high-risk situations and develop coping strategies.  In this way relapsers can diffuse irrational thinking, manage painful feelings, and stop the self-defeating behaviors before they lead to alcohol or drug use.

This is done by taking each relapse warning sign and developing a general coping strategy.  Jake, for example developed the following management strategy for dealing with his job related stress.

Jake’s Warning Sign
I know I am in trouble with my recovery when I feel unable to cope with high levels of job-related stress.

General Coping Strategy
I will learn how to say no to taking on extra projects, limit my work to 45 hours per week, and learn how to use relaxation exercises and meditation to unwind.

Matching Coping Strategies to Warning Signs

The next step is to identify ways to cope with the irrational thoughts, unmanageable feelings, and self-defeating behaviors that accompany each warning sign.  Jake developed the following coping strategies:

Irrational Thought:  I need to try harder in order to get things under control or else I will be a failure.
Rational Thought:  I am burned out because I am trying too hard.  I need to time to rest or I will start making more mistakes.

Unmanageable Feelings:  Humiliation and embarrassment.
Feeling Management Strategy:  Talk about my feelings with others.  Remind myself that there is no reason to embarrassed.  I am a fallible human being and all people get tired.

Self-defeating Behavior: Driving myself to keep working even thought I know I need to rest.
Constructive Behavior:  Take a break and relax.  Ask someone to review the project and see if they can help me to solve the problem.

Step 6:  Recovery Planning

Now Jake is ready to move unto the sixth step of recovery planning.  A recovery plan is a schedule of activities that puts relapsers into regular contact with people who will help them to avoid alcohol and drug use.  They must stay sober by working the twelve step program and attending relapse prevention support groups that teach them to recognize and manage relapse warning signs.  This is why I call relapse prevention planning a “Twelve Step Plus” approach to recovery.

Jake needed to build something into his recovery program to help him deal with job related stress.  He decided to enter into counseling with a counselor who specialized in stress management, understood chemical dependency and had a background as an employee assistance counselor.  By doing this Jake was forced to regular discuss his problems at work and review how he was coping with them.  By identifying job related problems early, he could prevent getting overwhelmed by small problems that became overwhelming.

Step 7:  Inventory Training

The seventh step is inventory training.  Most relapsers find it helpful to get in the habit of doing a morning and evening inventory.  The goal of the morning inventory is to prepare to recognize and manage warning signs.  The goal of the evening inventory is to review progress and problems.  This allows relapsers to stay anticipate high risk situations and monitor for relapse warning signs.  Relapsers need to take inventory work seriously because most warning signs are deeply entrenched habits that are hard to change and tend to automatically come back whenever certain problems or stresses occur.  If we aren’t alert we may not notice them until it’s too late.

Step 8:  Family Involvement

The eighth step is family involvement.  A supportive family can make the difference between recovery and relapse.  We need to encourage our family members to get involved in Alanon so they can recover from codependency.  With this foundation of shared recovery we can beginning talking with our families about past relapses, the warning signs that led up to them, and how the relapse hurt the family.  Most importantly we can work together to avoid future relapse.

If we had heart disease we would want our family to be prepared for an emergency.  Chemical dependency is a disease just like heart disease.  Our families’ needs to know about the early warning signs that lead to relapse.  They must be prepared to take fast and decisive action if we return to chemical use.  We can work out in advance, when we are in a sober state of mind, the steps they should take if we return to chemical use.  Our very life could depend upon it.

Step 9:  Follow-Up

The final step is follow-up.  Our warning signs will change as we progress in recovery.  Each stage of recovery has unique warning signs.  Our ability to deal with the warning signs of one stage of recovery doesn’t guarantee that we will recognize or know how to manage the warning signs of the next stage.  Our relapse prevention plan needs to be updated regularly; monthly for the first three months, quarterly for the first two years, and annually thereafter.

Originally Published In:  Alcoholism & Addiction Magazine: Relapse – Issues and Answers: Column 3:  How To Develop A Relapse Prevention Plan: By Terence T. Gorski, September 25, 1989, and updated regularly since that time.

About the Author

Terence T. Gorski is the President of the CENAPS Corporation a training and consultation firm specializing in relapse prevention, addictive relationships and treating chemically dependent ACA’s.  He holds a B.A. degree in psychology and sociology from Northeastern Illinois University and an M.A. from Webster’s College in St. Louis, Missouri.  He is a Senior Certified Addiction Counselor In Illinois.  He also contributes articles and interviews to major magazines, acts as a consultant to the health care industry, and conducts workshops in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Some of his books include Passages Through Recovery, Staying Sober: and Relapse Prevention for African Americans. These and many more are provided in our Recovery Bookstore under the heading “Relapse Prevention. For more information about his leading techniques used by some of the nation’s top rehabilitation facilities or to  enroll in one of his training programs, you may also visit his site directly at

One Response to How To Develop A Relapse Prevention Plan

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