Slip vs Relapse: What’s The Difference?

What's A Slip vs Relapse in Addiction Recovery

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Addiction is an all-consuming disease that can have us do, say, and think things we never would otherwise. It can cause us to abandon our instincts for self-preservation and ultimately turn us into a version of ourselves that we no longer recognize. It’s only natural then, that recovery from such a powerful affliction is bound to have a few bumps in the road.  

However, just as substance abuse isn’t black and white, neither are the circumstances of relapse. Sometimes those missteps when we stray from sobriety are just a blip, rather than an extended stray from the course. That’s why there are terms for the intermediary types of relapse that precede a full-on return to destructive old, drug-using ways. We’re exploring those nuances by comparing different relapse terminology, particularly a slip versus relapse, as well as why these differences matter in the grand scheme of addiction recovery.

 

The Difference Between a Slip vs Relapse

Relapse is defined as the act of using a drug after an attempt to stop. It involves several stages, all of which insinuate some degree of premeditation. First, there’s emotional relapse (poor self-care, isolating, not going to meetings), mental relapse (cravings, thinking about people or places associated with past drug use), and finally, the physical relapse which is the actual return to drug use. 

Many researchers and others in the addiction treatment space split the physical relapse stage into two types of re-engagement: relapse and a lesser type of use known as a lapse or slip (the terms are often used interchangeably in regards to addiction). A slip may have different definitions depending on who you ask, but all point to a controlled and often one-time return to drinking or engaging in drug use. 

The most important difference between a slip and relapse is the desire to stay sober and the motivation to continue the course of recovery. A slip or a lapse is characterized by the individual maintaining their commitment to their treatment even after wavering. By contrast, a full-blown relapse is a complete return to the pattern of drug-using behavior prior which is also often accompanied by an abandonment of relapse prevention practices.

Both have the potential to be dangerous and bear harmful physiological consequences, however, since a relapse involves a prolonged period of resumed drug use it carries the greatest degree of risk.

 

Why Relapse Terminology Matters

Relapse is an aspect of any chronic condition—and the proof is in the numbers. Between 40-60% of those who receive substance treatment end up relapsing at some point (these rates for substance abuse are similar to those of the rates for asthma and hypertension). 

Despite its commonality, acknowledging a relapse can be demoralizing and discouraging. Those negative feelings associated with it can be just as harmful as the drug use itself. Why? Because motivation is one of the key predictors of whether addiction treatment will be successful. 

Further, studies have found that our perception of relapse can play a big role in our ability to get back on track. So while, biologically, it makes no difference where a person’s head was at when they used again, whether it was heavily contemplated, premeditated, or a quick impulse (a drug in the system is a drug in the system), distinguishing between a slip versus a relapse can have tremendous psychological benefits. 

The way we label such setbacks can influence our ability to accept what happened and eventually move on. That’s why knowing that there are different kinds or levels, per se, of resumed drug use that proceed the dreaded r-word can be highly beneficial to the overall recovery journey.

If you or a loved one has struggled with relapse in the past, a high level of addiction treatment might just be the key to breaking the cycle. Our residential addiction rehab program offers medical detox, counseling, and group therapy with 5-star amenities and accommodations. Learn more about whether inpatient treatment is right for you.

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