The Critical Difference Between Relapse And Lapses

Feb 09, 2023

Quite often, people use the term “relapse” and “lapse” interchangeably however there is a clear distinction between both. 

A lapse or a “lesson” is a minor slip in recovery. If you are aiming to quit using drugs or drinking entirely, you might experience a lesson if you have a drink, use or even prepare to drink or use without consciously thinking about the behaviour. If you are choosing to reduce how much you are using or drinking and develop control and choice in your actions, a lapse could include mindlessly engaging in those behaviours. It is the outcome of those behaviours which determine whether or not it has become a lesson or relapse. If you realise after or in the moment that you did not want to engage in that behaviour, by choosing to take considered proactive steps to change the trajectory of that behaviour and choose to do something different suggests that you experienced a lapse. It is considered a lesson as you can learn from that behaviour and engage in lapse management by reflecting on the process and plan how you can have a different outcome next time.  

A lapse is a normal and almost expected part of the early recovery stage and is not necessarily a precursor to relapse.   

A relapse, on the other hand, involves a complete shift in thinking or behaving regarding recovery and not seeing it as a lesson. An individual who has experienced a relapse moves back into the precontemplation stage of change and does not want to change or see the behaviour as problematic or needing to be amended. A relapse can spiral into more frequent and destructive behaviours though this does not mean that you are stuck in the spiral forever. With the right support and accountability through programs and recovery groups, you can slowly move back into the contemplation stage of change and get back on track.  

If you are within the cycle of relapse, you may notice that the negative consequences such as financial problems, breakdowns in relationships, mistrust from those you love, exhaustion, perpetual sleep difficulties and poor health continue or potentially become worse.  

It is also important to note that recovery is a process which means that it is not uncommon for people in recovery to experience a lapse or relapse at some point within the journey. It is essential that you can learn from those experiences and view them opportunities to develop and improve in your recovery not as setbacks or failures.