Substance Addiction: 5 Myths (and Truths) About Relapse Prevention

Rear view of person with long red hair sitting on bench at sunset looking over lakeThink you know about relapse prevention? Answer “true” or “false” to the following questions:

  1. If you stop the use of a mood-altering substance and then begin using again, you have relapsed.
  2. Relapse can be avoided with willpower and self-discipline.
  3. You have to hit bottom before you can get better.
  4. Thinking about relapse will make it happen.
  5. There are positive addictions.

The answer to each of these questions is false.

* * *

Myth: If you stop the use of a mood-altering substance and then begin using it again, you have relapsed.

Reality: Relapse is a process with identifiable signs and symptoms that occur over a period of days, weeks, or months, not a matter of hours or minutes. The goal is to identify your signs and to train others to recognize them so they can help you interrupt them.

Relapse also cannot occur until you acknowledge there is a problem and take active steps to correct it. Often a person’s “clean date” and “sobriety date” are different. Many people report they initially stop using because of external pressure from parents, family, the legal system, or health reasons. It is only once you stop using the substance AND make the choice to do something different AND implement appropriate lifestyle changes that you become sober.

* * *

Myth: Relapse can be prevented with willpower and self-discipline.

Reality: Willpower and self-discipline are important parts of recovery, but are only two components. You need knowledge of what is happening to you, especially because the first phase of relapse often is denial. This is significant because if you are pretending there is no problem, willpower will do nothing to change your unhealthy behavior.

You first need to acknowledge the presence of a problem. You need information on what to do when you are in the relapse process, and you need a support system to confront your denial and help you get healthy again.

* * *

Myth: You have to hit bottom before you can get better.

This is why it is so important to have a prevention plan in place, rather than just an emergency action plan. It is easier to prevent a crisis than to resolve one.

Reality: The belief behind the concept of “hitting bottom” is life has to be at its worst possible point before a person will take the steps to get better. The reality is you need to recognize you are experiencing some symptoms before you will seek help. It’s the same as recognizing a symptom like a fever or a sore throat before going to see a doctor.

But too much pain is not healthy. Your goal is to recognize the symptoms of relapse and get help before your situation gets bad again. This is why it is so important to have a prevention plan in place, rather than just an emergency action plan. It is easier to prevent a crisis than to resolve one.

Remember: A relapse isn’t just about using a substance. It is a signal something in your recovery is not working. Going through the relapse process can be a powerful experience of learning what not to do, identifying areas you need to work on, and reinforcing the attention that goes into recovery. The hope is to decrease the frequency, duration, and impact of a relapse.

* * *

Myth: Thinking about relapse will make it happen.

Reality: The opposite is true. If you do not think about the possibility of relapse, you are likely to place yourself in higher-risk situations. Think about why you fasten a seatbelt. When you click it, do you assume you are going to be in an accident? No, you do it to protect yourself, just in case. The same concept applies to paying attention to your environment and the choices you make concerning mood-altering substances. You need to be aware of your thought processes so if a risky situation does come up, you are better prepared to deal with it. If you do not think ahead and practice self-awareness, you can be caught off guard and make an impulsive decision that might not yield the best results.

On the flip side, if you are thinking about using and see only the good things about it, this indicates a problem. While you may have had fun while under the influence, your misuse of substances did become a problem in your life. The hope is when you do reminisce, you will recall the negative things that happened as a result of using. Forbidden thinking is not healthy because it tends to increase your cravings. A realistic weighing of the pros and cons relating to substance use tends to yield better results.

* * *

Myth: There are positive addictions that can be used to deal with negative ones.

Reality: There are no positive addictions. You may believe you can substitute healthier behaviors for negative ones. You may think it is better to smoke cigarettes than marijuana or to attend hours of mutual support meetings instead of spending hours in a bar. However, all addictions are harmful in some way. They usually indicate a loss of control and imply that the substance or behavior has taken over your thoughts and actions. Actions that might normally be considered healthy—such as going to church, exercising, and eating better—can have unintended consequences if taken to extremes.

If you cannot manage life without the behavior, it is a problem. The new, less destructive behavior is often covering up some other preexisting problem that needs to be addressed. The goal for healthy living is balance. Without it, some area of your life is likely to suffer.

For help with an addiction or substance use, contact a qualified counselor in your area.


  1. Gorski, T. T., & Miller, M. (1989). Mistaken beliefs about relapse. Independence, MO: Herald House.
  2. Larimer, M. E., Marlatt, A. G., & Palmer, R. S. (1999). Relapse prevention: An overview of Marlatt’s cognitive behavioral model. Alcohol Research and Health, 23(2), 151-160.
  3. Turner, C. (2017). Can I keep drinking? How you can decide when enough is enough. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Eden

    June 26th, 2017 at 9:09 AM

    We had always heard the term hitting bottom but i don’t think that any of us really knew how low that could be until we watched my little brother struggle with addiction. The biggest trouble is that while we may see one thing as a personal low, the addict my not see it that way at all. He is still willing to go lower and lower until he can’t maintain that high any longer. I think that the problem is that we see addiction through our eyes, the non addict and can never experience it in the same way that the addict does.

  • Cyndi Turner

    June 26th, 2017 at 12:52 PM

    Eden- very true. Addiction affects the whole family. This is why it is so important for not only the person struggling, but the whole family to get help. I can only image how devastating it has been for you to watch him go through something so terrible. I hope all of you have been able to find professional help and develop healthy support systems.

  • Ernie B

    June 26th, 2017 at 12:36 PM

    Great description for me of what it means to simply be clean versus what it means to get sober

  • Cyndi Turner

    July 5th, 2017 at 5:24 PM

    Hi Ernie! Thank you–I hope you are on your path to finding balance.

  • rocky

    June 27th, 2017 at 1:27 PM

    There have been times when I have told myself that I relapsed because I had a drink or two. I think that for me this was all a way that I could then say oh well, might as well have another one now! If I had looked at it as just a one time thing and then immediately gotten right back on my program then I would have probably saved myself and my family a whole lot of heartache. Instead I would use one slip to justify going off the deep end again for a little while and then having to start making new progress all over again.

  • Cyndi Turner

    July 5th, 2017 at 5:26 PM

    Rocky–it sounds like you have realized your pattern and what you can to do have a better outcome. Great job!

  • Garnett

    June 27th, 2017 at 4:47 PM

    You say that these are all myths but there has to be some speck of truth to them to even become so pervasive in how we think about addiction?

  • Cyndi Turner

    July 5th, 2017 at 5:31 PM

    Garnett–I agree. There is a little bit of truth, it just got distorted. And remember: things are not black and white. There are shades of grey that make life more complicated, but way more interesting!

  • Asa

    June 28th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    I don’t know, I think about a piece of cake for a long enough amount of time then I am probably gonna go eat one.

  • Cyndi Turner

    July 5th, 2017 at 5:28 PM

    Asa, the goal is to play it through! Are you just salivating about how good it will taste or are thinking about how you might feel a little sick after eating it and how your pants will not fit as well?!

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