So let’s say that for some time now things have been going better for you in a particular area of your life.  Perhaps you have had some success in treating anxiety or depression, or have developed a more satisfying sleep pattern, or have noticed an improvement in your social life, physical health, or have reduced your drug and alcohol use.  No doubt any helpful change in your life took a lot of effort, hard work and specific action to help bring about the change. Perhaps it also cost a lot of money to help make the changes.

What can you do to make sure that you maintain that success?  What can you do to reduce the risk of returning to the way things were before? One way of doing this is by using something called ‘Relapse Prevention’.

What is Relapse Prevention?

Relapse prevention is a term most commonly used in the area of drug and alcohol treatment, where someone is working to maintain positive changes they have established regarding their personal drug and alcohol use.  However, I am using it here to refer to maintaining positive change in any area of your life.

‘Relapse’ is a term used to describe a reversal of positive changes that had been well established. It describes a return to a previous pattern of behaviour.  It specifically refers to a long period of negative change, rather than just a day or two of the undesired situation.

On the other hand, ‘Lapse’ refers to the everyday slipping-up or engaging in old habits. Lapses are temporary and not as significant as a full relapse.

For example, a lapse might be when someone has a couple of days of increased alcohol consumption when they had previously been successful for months in limiting their consumption. A lapse could be when someone has not exercised for week or so, when previously they had been exercising a few times a week for the last few months.  It could be when someone has developed a regular practice of relaxation to assist with their anxiety and then goes a short period of time without their practice.  In contrast, a relapse would refer to fully reverting to previous levels of the unhelpful behaviour.

Why is it important to know the difference between a relapse and a lapse important? 

  • Because lapses are a normal part of making change!
  • Lapses are to be expected!
  • Because it can be helpful to learn from lapses as they can teach us about situations that are difficult for us to stick to what is important to us or stick to our goal.

So it can be helpful not to treat a lapse as a catastrophe, but to think of it as a normal part of change, and even as an opportunity to learn something about how we are making changes in our life.

Keep this in mind for yourself, as well as for those close to you who may have lapsed in some area of their life.  Here are some other tips to consider when working to prevent your own relapse…

  • Identify your signs of relapse. What can you notice that might suggest things are worsening for you?
  • Recognise high risk times – when are you more likely to struggle with acting the way you want or sticking to your goal? Are there particular situations that are especially difficult?  Perhaps it’s more about feeling a certain way (e.g., feeling tired, lonely etc), rather than a situation, that makes it hard to act how you want to.
  • Develop strategies to help cope with or minimise exposure to high risk times.
  • Identify all the elements that have been helpful in you making the positive progress in the first place. Even write down a list or a brain-storming picture.  Then try to keep on top of the different elements.
  • Reflect on the reasons WHY you decided to make the change in the first place. Think about the pros and cons of your behaviour (for your desired AND undesired behaviour).
  • Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge your gains and your effort.
  • Get support for yourself.

I hope you find some of these tips helpful, especially during this time of year when people are often reflecting on what is important to them.  Please don’t hesitate to contact us as the practice if you need support making or maintaining a desired change in your life.


Karri Stewart

Karri is a Clinical Psychologist who works with children, adolescents and adults on a wide range of presenting problems.When working with clients she endeavours to tailor treatments to individual client needs by incorporating the interests and strengths of clients with best practice treatment guidelines.
Karri Stewart

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