For many individuals striving to break free from the clutches of addictive habits, relapse can be a haunting specter, a reality that casts a shadow over their progress.
In this article, I want to explain factors that contribute to preventing relapse and explain the gradual process that causes relapse. Conscience of this could be a contributing factor to a healthy life, and preventing a relapse (or initial start) of addictive behavior.
Please note that this article is not written as medical or professional advice but as an exploration of my own interests. If you’re dealing with serious addictive habits, consult a medical professional.
Neurochemistry: The Limbic system
Before we dive into the stages of relapse, we need to explain the workings of neurochemistry. Our brain is an incredible organ, and when it comes to understanding why we do what we do, it all comes down to our neurochemistry. Simplifying it, theyou arere are two key systems in our brain:
- Neocortex: This is our brain’s “smart” center, responsible for our higher functions like sensory perception, conscious movements, reasoning, abstract thinking, and language. It’s where we make decisions, set goals, and communicate effectively.
- Limbic System: The limbic system is the emotional core of our brain, controlling automatic bodily responses and our emotions. It’s responsible for our fight-or-flight survival instincts.
Typically, we go about our lives driven by the neocortex, making logical decisions and plans. But, there are times when the limbic system takes the reins, and we act not out of logic, but out of fear and the desire to avoid pain.
Limbic System and Survival
The limbic system is like our brain’s survival switchboard. It’s influenced by our past experiences. If a situation made us happy, like a fun day at the fair, our brain remembers it and next time we’ll want to go back. But, if we had a bad experience, say, feeling sick on a Ferris wheel, our brain stores it as a negative memory. The next time we see a Ferris wheel, the limbic system interprets it as a threat, and we feel fear or anger. These feelings get amplified because the limbic system releases adrenaline and endorphins, numbing pain and intensifying fear and anger – all to prepare us for a fight or flight response.
In essence, the limbic system is shaped by our past traumatic experiences.
Consider growing up in a dysfunctional family where needing help or support led to vulnerability, pain, abandonment, and isolation. Your brain learned that having needs was dangerous, so to protect yourself, you adopted the survival thought: “I don’t need anyone.” Fast forward thirty years and your limbic system still screams “DANGER!” whenever you’re in a situation where you might feel vulnerable. This leads to fear and a fight or flight response, even when it’s no longer necessary.
In essence, your past experiences have programmed your limbic system, and it’s essential to understand how this affects your reactions and decisions today.
The limbic system, as we’ve learned, can be a formidable force, and its impact on your life is not to be underestimated. Picture it this way: think about how it can disrupt your relationships with others. The reactions stemming from your limbic system can be so overwhelming at times that it feels like ‘something’ else is in control, and your logical thinking seems to vanish.
However, it’s crucial to understand that you have the power to change these responses. To illustrate this, let’s consider a simple example:
How Coffee and Change Show Us the Power of Our Brains
Imagine this: You try coffee for the first time in your life. It’s enjoyable at first, but suddenly, five minutes later, you feel so nauseous that you end up vomiting. Your limbic system, which we’ve learned controls your gut reactions and emotions, tags coffee as a potential threat. So, the next time someone offers you a cup of coffee, you instinctively shout “NO” in disgust.
But, what if you could use your thinking brain, the neocortex, to make a different choice? You remember that you actually liked coffee at first. With some bravery, you decide to give it another go. This time, there are no unpleasant consequences. In fact, you feel fantastic all day long, and coffee becomes a regular part of your life. Your positive experience with your coffee gradually lessens the fear response in your limbic system.
In simple terms, if the coffee had made you sick again, it would have strengthened your fear of it, and it might have taken a while before you dared to try coffee again. The second cup of coffee was a risk—you had to decide whether things would go well or wrong.
This coffee story mirrors how we deal with themes like vulnerability, trust, and pain in our lives. Good experiences in situations where you feel vulnerable, trust others, or open up to pain can gradually tame the intense DANGER response in your limbic system. But, to gain these good experiences, you need to take risks.
Starting this journey can be pretty scary, especially at the beginning of your transformation, because your limbic system is on high alert. As time passes and you accumulate positive experiences, taking risks becomes easier.
It’s essential to remember that when you take these risks, you’re not the same person as you were back then. You’ve grown, matured, and become more resilient, so the fears of your past no longer define you.
The FASTER Scale
Your limbic system plays a significant role in the relapse process, contributing to relapse. In simple terms, it boils down to this: when you make choices that trigger anxiety or fear (often labeled as ‘bad decisions’), the limbic system reacts by releasing substances like adrenaline and endorphins into your body. As mentioned earlier, these substances work to numb pain and suppress feelings. This sets off a chain of stages that move you closer to relapse.
In the United States, a relapse awareness model has been coined by Dye and Fancher, called the ‘FASTER awareness scale.’ The term ‘Faster’ suggests the speed at which each phase of the relapse process can bring you closer to a setback, partly due to the influence of neurochemical processes in your body.
In the sections that follow, we’ll delve into each stage of the FASTER scale to give you a better understanding of how it all comes together. These are the stages in the FASTER model, which I will explain later:
- Forgetting Priorities
- Speeding Up
- Ticked Off
Finally, these stages culminate in relapse, into the actual addictive behavior.
The model starts with the initial stage, restoration before actually going into the FASTER steps. Following are sequential steps of relapse. In the restoration model, the highest stage is also the first: restoration. Think of it as the stage of ‘surrender,’ where you adopt an attitude of accepting life as it is, on its own terms, or maybe as a divine plan.
Here, you welcome both the good and the bad with a sense of gratitude for the love of a higher power and the help of those around you.
In this stage, you are open and honest about your challenges, facing them head-on, and actively working to find solutions. Instead of contributing to problems, you become part of the solution. It’s important to note that harboring secrets can lead to relapse.
Here are some key behaviors and characteristics associated with the recovery stage:
- No hidden secrets
- Actively addressing and resolving problems
- Recognizing and addressing fears and emotions
- Staying committed to agreements regarding meetings, relationships, personal goals, and self-care
- Open communication
- Honesty and transparency
- Making eye contact with others
- Reaching out for support
- Nurturing relationships with both a higher power and other individuals.
Step 1: Forgetting Priorities
In the recovery journey, the stage of “dry decline” marks a shift in what holds importance and how you invest your time and thoughts. One of the earliest signs of dry decline is a sudden change in plans and priorities. For instance, you might have initially planned to return to school to earn a degree, which aligns with your long-term goals. However, a week later, everything takes a different turn. Your new goal becomes getting a job, buying a car, renting you an apartment, and maybe revisiting your studies someday. This change, whether conscious or not, reflects your attempt to avoid confronting a new challenge.
This avoidance is often driven by fear and procrastination, leading to tension. This tension triggers the release of chemicals in the limbic system, which, in turn, speeds up the body’s functions and numbs emotional pain. As these chemicals circulate, they can heighten anxiety and depression while diminishing your focus on simple life tasks and priorities.
Here are some common characteristics and behaviors associated with the dry decline stage:
- Reduced time and energy allocated to spiritual practices, meetings, and social involvement.
- Avoidance of supportive individuals and those who can hold you accountable.
- Engaging in shallow or superficial conversations.
- Withdrawal or isolation.
- Shifts in your goals and a preoccupation with material possessions, TV, and entertainment.
- Frequently delaying important tasks or commitments.
Dry decline can be a challenging phase, but recognizing its signs and working to address them is a critical step in maintaining a healthy recovery journey.
Step 2: Anxiety, Dealing with Fear and Tension
The next step in understanding the role of neurochemicals in your journey involves recognizing how ‘release’ can be triggered by drama. It’s when you react too strongly to situations and other people. At this stage, old grudges and grievances resurface repeatedly. You might start blaming people, places, and things for how you feel.
When you become overly critical of others’ behavior, your focus shifts away from yourself and your own priorities. This leads to a sense of anxiety and a lack of confidence in the future. Worrying, especially about things beyond your control, can create an emotional charge, releasing adrenaline in your body. Regrets from the past and anxieties about the future further fuel this emotional charge, leading to more adrenaline production.
The problem with all this is that it distracts you from enjoying the present moment. It’s essential to learn how to live in the here and now, taking life one day at a time.
Here are some signs and behaviors associated with this stage:
- Anxiety and concern
- Feeling fearful or resentful
- Revisiting old negative thought patterns
- Criticizing others’ motives
- Engaging in mind-reading or fantasizing
- Assuming the role of a rescuer
- Experiencing sleep and concentration problems
- Seeking or causing drama
Step 3: Speeding Up, The Acceleration Phase
In this step, we explore how the neurochemical response can reduce feelings of fear or anxiety through a subconscious attempt to speed things up, resulting in a temporary numbing of depression. Common traits of this stage include an aversion to being alone, a relentlessyou are pace, and an inability to take things slowly or relax.
During this phase, people often push themselves to the limit. They may overwork without eating regular meals throughout the day, only to party and indulge in the evening. The craving for more caffeine and sugar is another way to maintain this accelerated state. Individuals may find themselves engaging in long days, going out every night, staying up late, and experiencing erratic eating patterns.
For many, excessive physical exercise is a primary method to stay ahead of feelings of depression. It’s often a way to deny physical and emotional needs that should be addressed.
Here are some behaviors and characteristics often seen in the acceleration phase:
- Being overly busy and a workaholic
- Inability to relax
- Skipping meals or binge eating, typically in the evening
- Difficulty recognizing one’s own feelings and needs
- Repeated negative thoughts
- Mood swings and heightened sensitivity
- Craving for more caffeine
- Overdoing physical exercise
- Feelings of loneliness and being misunderstood
- Efforts to get others to listen to their concerns.
Step 4: Ticked Off, The Irritated Phase
In this stage, we witness how anger plays a pivotal role in triggering the release of adrenaline (a stress hormone that heightens alertness and provides energy), endorphins (natural painkillers), and norepinephrine (inducing euphoric feelings). At this point, an individual often feels more significant, confident, strong, and assertive, seemingly unaware of pain. Neurochemically, anger can mimic the effects of cocaine use. It serves as a potent emotional and physical painkiller.
However, during this stage, anger tends to be excessive and disproportionate to the situations or individuals involved. The person reacts emotionally with exaggeration, often accusing others and pushing them away with an attitude of ‘I don’t need anyone.’ Walls of rejection are built, isolating oneself, where no one is allowed in, while the person grows increasingly angry at others because they are not meeting their undisclosed needs.
It’s important to note that this phase can be challenging to recognize. The person may feel strong and even believe they are in step 2 or recovery. When confronted about their behavior or a possible ‘relapse,’ their response is often a defensive “Yes, but what do you think?”
Behaviors and characteristics linked to this stage include:
- Crisis in areas such as finances, work, and relationships
- Frequent angry outbursts and persistent resentment
- Pushing others away and isolating oneself
- Difficulty handling criticism
- Physical symptoms like digestive issues and headaches
- Obsessive or repetitive thoughts
- An inability to forgive.
Step 5: The Exhausted Phase
As we reach the final stage before a potential return to substance use, the neurochemicals are nearly depleted. Consequently, feelings of pain, anger, panic, and tension become increasingly overwhelming. The individual experiences waves of fear that become extremely challenging to manage. Prolonged stagnation in this stage can lead to a profound sense of fatigue, hopelessness, and depression.
Moreover, when a crisis occurs during this time, the person often feels helpless and unable to cope. At such moments, the emotional part of the brain associated with survival takes over, saying, ‘drugs and alcohol are the only way to get through this.’ Familiar phrases at this point may include: ‘Screw it,’ ‘I don’t need this,’ ‘Forget it, I can’t handle this,’ and ‘I deserve it.’
Behaviors and characteristics commonly seen in the exhausted phase involve:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Irregular sleep patterns (either excessive or inadequate)
- A pessimistic outlook
- A sense of helplessness
- Profound fatigue and emotional numbness
- A desire to escape
- Thoughts of avoiding certain people
- Estrangement from people who are upset with you
- Destructive behavior
- Suicidal thoughts
- A lack of goals and an exclusive focus on survival rather than living
- An inability to function effectively.
Using the Five Steps for Relapse Awareness
In my opinion, recognizing and preventing relapse is a critical aspect of maintaining a healthy recovery journey. The five steps you’ve learned can serve as a valuable tool to heighten your awareness of the potential for relapse and leverage your social network for support, leading to a life of restoration. Here’s how you can use these steps effectively:
- Use the lessons from the first step to establish a strong foundation for your recovery journey. Focus on embracing life as it comes, with both its positives and challenges. Maintain gratitude for the support of your social network and possibly, the love of a higher power such as God.
- Be vigilant about sudden changes in your priorities and plans. If you notice a shift towards avoidance, anxiety, or procrastination, engage with your social support network to discuss these feelings and potential triggers. Sharing your concerns can help reduce the emotional charge.
- Recognize the signs of an overly busy or accelerated lifestyle. Seek support from your social network to maintain a healthy balance. Share your feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and isolation, and reach out to others for help in finding better ways to cope with stress.
- Acknowledge the role of anger as a potential painkiller. Engage with your social network when you notice excessive irritability or feelings of being wronged. Discuss your emotions, seek alternative methods for addressing your issues, and share your experiences to gain perspective and support.
- Be aware of the point where neurochemicals are nearly depleted, and overwhelming feelings of fatigue, hopelessness, and depression arise. If you find yourself in this phase, urgently reach out to your social support network. Confide in friends or family, and consider professional assistance if needed. Share your feelings of despair and the desire to escape, as well as any thoughts of self-harm. Your support network can help you find healthy coping mechanisms and provide the emotional support you need.
Incorporating these steps into your recovery strategy can enhance your self-awareness and reliance on your social support network. By actively communicating with trusted individuals during these phases, you can minimize the risk of relapse and work together to ensure a lasting and healthy recovery. Remember, you don’t have to face this journey alone; your social network is there to help you every step of the way.
Understanding the Role of Neurotransmitters in Relapse
In the description of the five stages of relapse, we encounter some important substances, known as neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline, endorphins, and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitters are tiny molecules that help nerve cells communicate within our nervous system. These nerve cells are like the body’s information processors, regulating various bodily functions, including our thinking abilities.
To put it simply, substances like adrenaline don’t just affect specific bodily functions; they also influence our ability to think. Given their pivotal roles in the five relapse stages, let’s take a closer look at four key neurotransmitters:
- Adrenaline: Your body produces adrenaline in response to anxiety, stress, anger, cold, heat, pain, and physical exertion. Adrenaline enhances alertness and provides extra energy. This can be beneficial in situations that demand a quick response, like survival in dangerous situations or athletic performance.
- Norepinephrine (also known as norepinephrine): Another neurotransmitter produced by the adrenal glands, norepinephrine has a potent stimulating effect. It can make you feel euphoric but may also induce feelings of tension, anxiety, or excitement.
- Dopamine: This neurotransmitter is associated with experieyou arencing pleasure, happiness, and general well-being.
- Endorphins: Endorphins act as natural pain suppressors and create feelings of happiness or euphoria. In terms of their impact on the nervous system, endorphins are similar to opium and heroin.
Now, when it comes to relapse, anger can trigger the release of adrenaline, endorphins, and norepinephrine. You can imagine that during step four of the relapse scale, these substances can distort your perception of reality. You might feel euphoric, strong, and invincible, making it challenging to accept help from others who see things differently. It’s important to recognize that these neurochemical reactions can cloud your judgment during such moments.
Phew, that was quite read, wasn’t it? Let’s conclude some of the facts here. Though you may find this article an odd one out in my articles, I always have been interested in psychology and human behavior.
So, in conclusion, understanding the dynamics of relapse and the role of neurotransmitters in the recovery journey is crucial for maintaining a healthy and successful path to sobriety. The five stages of relapse provide helpful insights into how our bodies and minds respond to various triggers and stressors.
By recognizing these stages, individuals can proactively navigate the challenges they may face, and with the support of their social network, they can build resilience against relapse. The journey starts with embracing life, both its highs and lows, and continues with vigilance during shifts in priorities and accelerating lifestyles. In my opinion, it is essential to seek help and share feelings of anxiety and loneliness, while managing irritability, anger, and negative thoughts.