Understanding Relapses

Relapsing, or going back to drinking after a period of not drinking, is a normal experience for many people. 

There are natural challenges along the change journey

There are also additional life hurdles to making changes to your drinking

Knowing your personal warning signs and understanding what leads up to a lapse is a great first step to managing a return to drinking.

Each time you reach for a drink or return to drinking, see it as an opportunity to learn. You know more about what triggers you to drink. This can help you make lasting change.

Understanding the return to drinking

Before we dive into the reasons why it is common to return to drinking, let’s look at  how change happens in general. 

Check out the ‘Stage of Change’ diagram below.  We are all somewhere on this cycle at any point in our lives – some of us are not even close to making a change, while others are on the brink of taking action.

There are different things going on for people at different stages of the change process. To read more about the Stages of Change, click here

It’s completely normal to go through each of these stages when changing your relationship with alcohol. Hitting some bumps in the road and returning to drinking is all part of the journey.

Most find that their relationship with alcohol changes the further they get down the path of alcohol reduction.

Understanding Relapse

Take a look at some of these situations in our ‘Understanding Relapses’ Activity Sheet and see if you can relate to any of them.
Your Personal Snapshot Report lets you know where you’re at in this cycle at the moment.

Explore your personal warning signs

You’ve probably asked yourself this question before, why do I go back to drinking? Let’s look at how these challenges can become hurdles and look into what the warning signs are for you.

There is a major difference between having one slip up and having a relapse – and It can be really helpful to know the difference. 

A lapse is a temporary slip up or return to drinking whereas a relapse represents a full-blown return to the drinking cycle. 

For example a person might have slipped up over the weekend and had a big night at their friend’s birthday party – this is a lapse if the person can get themselves back on track soon afterwards. A full blown relapse might be if the person continued to drink the next night at home, then during the week after work, and the week after that, and then gave up on their goals to reduce drinking altogether. 

In both cases, it is possible to get back on track. 

To deal with lapses and relapses, it is  important to be able to pay attention to how they happen and what was happening for you in the lead up to them. Often people find that they feel stronger after learning more about what trips them up.

Some people talk about the ‘pink cloud’, or the feeling of euphoria or exhilaration when they stop drinking. When we think about it, it is probably an effect of the depressant effects of alcohol wearing off, and the other associated benefits that come from not drinking, including better sleep, better digestion and improved mood – as well as a feeling of achievement and pride in being able to make significant changes.

Many describe this as a bit of a ‘honeymoon period’ – where everything feels better, when anything is possible. The idea of going back to alcohol seems ludicrous, and it is clear that an alcohol-free life is the way to go.

This is an incredible experience for people, many of whom have struggled for years with physical and mental health issues that have resulted in their drinking – to suddenly feel ‘better’, and have a good explanation for this, is really powerful. Why, then, do many people return to alcohol at some point in their lives?

Explanation 1: We change, but the rest of our world doesn’t

One thing that can sometimes come up for people after they have been in the ‘pink cloud’ for a couple of weeks, is the unfortunate reality that there are some things in our lives that don’t necessarily change when we stop drinking. Yes, we feel better and have more energy – we are able to save money and maybe get more done around the house. But, our financial situation might still be unpredictable, we might feel lonely, and we might continue to experience problems within our relationships. This can be an unpleasant awakening after the ‘pink cloud’ dissipates – that an alcohol-free life is much the same as life with alcohol – it is just us who have changed. 

Solution: People tell us that it is disheartening to see that, even though they have changed and progressed, the world around them has not really changed much at all. One thing that has been helpful, however, is considering how progress happens slowly and that each day of doing things differently is an improvement. The question of ‘how might I have handled this previously?’ is helpful – because we can see that, even though things are not perfect, they are probably better than they were when alcohol was being used on a regular basis. The euphoria of the ‘pink cloud’ often wears off, to be replaced instead by a sense of hope and optimism, but also realism – that while we probably can’t expect perfection, gradual improvements are sometimes good enough – and in six months or a year’s time, the world around us and our relationships might be substantially better than previously.

Explanation 2: Life happens

If you’ve ever been in a regular exercise routine, it is likely that you told yourself that this would be a part of your life forever. The benefits of exercise are enormous, however most of us exercise less than we would like. Life gets in the way; priorities shift and we can forget about the cost/benefit ratio of exercise. Alcohol use is similar – for many people achieving the ‘pink cloud’ effect is the result of significant work and planning, and over time alcohol can creep back into their lives. Just like exercise, changing our pattern of alcohol use can take a degree of motivation and sacrifice – we need to really want to change, and there need to be compelling reasons for us to invest time and effort into it.

Solution: Just like with exercise, we need to trust that the benefits are worth it and are going to come, and then tailor our behaviour accordingly. If we can acknowledge that having a period of not drinking, or drinking in moderation, is something that will likely improve our quality of life – just like getting enough sleep, or exercise, or drinking water – then it makes perfect sense to invest time and effort into this. Just like with exercise, it does take motivation to actually do it, but if we can be guided by past experience, we can trust that it is certainly worth it.

Noticing what happens in the lead up to a lapse can really help in the long run to prevent a full blown relapse. This involves looking into what situations, thoughts, feelings and even which people trigger you to want to drink. When you know better, you are much more prepared for the next time you are triggered to want to drink. But there are few things you can do immediately before you take a look at what is happening, take a look at them here.

Noticing what happens in the lead up to a lapse can really help in the long run to prevent a full blown relapse. This involves looking into what situations, thoughts, feelings and even which people trigger you to want to drink.

This reflective activity is your chance to take stock of what led up to the lapse, and take a deeper look at what you can do when lapses occur. You might like to do this activity now, or work through the rest of the content and come back to it when you have some time to sit down and think about how it all happened for you. You can find the activity in our ‘Understanding Relapses’ Activity Sheet.

Research into alcohol use tells us that we are most likely to experience lapses or relapses when our emotional and physical resources are low. For example when we are run down, stressed, grieving, lonely or bored. 

The acronym HALT (Hungry, Angry/Anxious, Lonely and Tired) can remind you of  what to look out for. We are much better at staying on track when we are well rested, have eaten, slept properly and have had a good week. It is the trigger times that we need to look out for. To learn more about the HALT concept, see below:

  • Hungry

When our bodies go for too long without food, our blood sugar levels drop and we can start to feel weak, foggy and depleted. In those moments, high calorie beverages such as wine and beer become very attractive, since they offer both emotional and physiological relief. For many people that 5pm ‘wine witch’ is silenced by making sure they are well hydrated and fed at this time, and their bodies are able to function at a high level – meaning that alcohol seems like less of a good idea. 

  • Angry/Anxious

One of the reasons we often use alcohol when we feel strong emotions like anger and anxiety is because it is a relaxant, and it can temporarily ‘take away’ those overwhelming sensations. Unfortunately, it is also dis-inhibiting, meaning we are likely to say or do things that we wouldn’t normally do if we were sober. There is value in finding other emotional regulation strategies like reaching out to friends for support, self soothing activities like a hot shower or listening to relaxing music, going for a long walk while listening to a podcast or music, or writing out your feelings. It is great to have a large toolbox of emotional regulation strategies so that alcohol is just one choice out of many. 

  • Lonely

Loneliness is an emotional state that puts us at risk of relapse or slipping back – it is a unique type of pain and one that can bring up unresolved emotions and pain. Alcohol is often used to ease the pain of loneliness, even as we know that it also contributes to the issue in some respects (since we are less likely to form meaningful friendships or relationships if we are drinking heavily). If you’re aware that loneliness is an issue for you, it is worth considering when this is going to feel most intense (eg. on weekends), and find some strategies to counteract this (eg. scheduled social activities, engaging hobbies, self care). 

  • Tired

Any type of tiredness is a risk factor for relapse, since we know that alcohol gives us a temporary boost in our reward centre – meaning we might experience mild euphoria after one or two drinks. This is appealing when we are depleted and tired, and many people use alcohol to try and lift their spirits and mood when they are in the midst of a busy time. It is useful to remember that, while it might feel like alcohol is helping perk us up, it also impacts our sleep, meaning that we actually end up more tired the following day if we are drinking. If you are feeling tired or depleted, see if you can make some small changes to improve your energy (eg. sleep hygiene strategies, drinking more water, temporarily reducing your commitments), and have some alternative pick-me-ups that don’t involve alcohol (eg. short walk around the block, hot shower, 20 minute naps, using a sleep tracker to make sure you get good quality sleep). 

In our Understanding Relapses’ Activity Sheet you can check out a  list of common warning signs for lapses as well as identify your own personal warning signs.

How to take care of yourself after returning to drinking

So what do you do when you find yourself wanting to go back to drinking? Here are some suggestions.

There are few things to remember that may ease your mind

A lapse is not a relapse. 

A lapse does not have to turn into a relapse.

Having a lapse doesn’t mean you lack motivation or you weren’t trying.

It doesn’t mean you have failed.

There is always more time for change.

The progress you made is not lost.

Many people who are struggling with alcohol describe strong feelings of guilt and shame about their alcohol use. After a period of staying off alcohol, it can be disappointing to find yourself reaching for a drink again. 

Certain thoughts might run through your head like “I’ve let others down” 

“I’ve let myself down” 

“this is too hard, I can’t do this”. 

Often the heavy feelings can be made worse by continuing to drink as it is a reminder of what is not happening for you.

When you’re in the midst of these uncomfortable feelings, the first step is to give yourself a break. You might like to check out this exercise on self-compassion in our ‘Understanding Relapses’ Activity Sheet.

In some ways, feeling guilty can guide us to want to make changes, but sometimes we might feel so guilty about things that we don’t want to make any changes at all. When you introduce alcohol on top of those feelings, it can derail your progress.

The main way to come out of a negative place is to reframe how you are feeling. 

Get some tips on how to do this using How to deal with Guilt’ exercise in the Activity Sheet.

Having support can greatly reduce the anxiety that comes up when you find yourself back in a place you don’t want to be. You might want to think about reaching out to friends, family, group support like SMART Recovery and the Daybreak app as a starting point.

Even though you may have hit some bumps in the road with your change journey, it is likely that to get here – you have already made some changes that have been helpful to you. Take some time to appreciate the changes you have made already.

Once you have your mindset in the right place and feel ready to continue your goal to reduce your drinking, it is useful to have a plan for what you will do if you feel tempted to drink again. Spend some time now thinking about what you’d like to do differently when you are tempted. You find an exercise to help you with this in our ‘Understanding Relapses’ Activity Sheet

In Summary

  • There are natural challenges along the change journey
  • There are also additional life hurdles to making changes to your drinking
  • Knowing your personal warning signs and understanding what leads up to a lapse is a great first step to managing a return to drinking

Want to learn more?

Organisations and Services

  • Smart Recovery (Facilitated face to face support groups)
  • DirectLine 1800 888 236 (VIC)
  • ADIS (all other states) 
    • NSW: 02 9361 8000 (Sydney) or 1800 422 599 (NSW regional and rural)
    • WA: (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024
    • TAS: (03) 6233 6722 or 1800 811 994
    • SA: 08 8363 8618 or 1300 131 340
    • QLD: (07) 3837 5989 or 1800 177 833
    • NT: 1800 629 683 (NT general) or 08 8922 8399 (Darwin) or 08 8951 7580 (Alice Springs)
    • ACT: 02 6205 4545


  • Daybreak  (online peer support App run by Hello Sunday Morning)

Books and Articles

There are lots of great books and articles offering help. We have selected a few to get you started:

  • This naked mind – Book by Annie Grace
  • Alcohol Explained – Book by William Porter

Get Help 

If reading this brings up tough stuff for you, please talk to a trusted family member, friend, GP or one of the other services listed on our  Get Help page. For additional support, we encourage you to follow the recommendations provided to you in your Personal Snapshot Report.

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