How a Relapse Begins: The Key To Removing Bad Habits


Relapse, verb –

  1. to fall or slip back into a former state, practice, etc.: to relapse into silence.
  2. to fall back into illness after convalescence or apparent recovery.
  3. to fall back into vice, wrongdoing, or error; backslide: to relapse into heresy.

A common view of relapses is that the start of the relapse is when you fall back into your former state of being.

For example, for an alcoholic, his relapse starts when he takes his first sip after a period of sobriety. For someone diagnosed with clinical depression, his relapse starts with the onset of his depression. For a smoker, his relapse starts when he takes his first puff (after a long break). For an emotional eater, his relapse begins when he has a binge attack after a period of healthy eating.


This view is good in that it helps you to categorize the periods when you are “down” and the periods when you are “clean”. It helps you to work toward the goal of becoming “clean” – clean of the addiction, clean of the bad habit, or clean of the bad practice. This is the objective of rehabilitation clinics – to help you be clean and stay clean.

However, the problem with this view is that it only looks at the physical occurrence of the relapse without considering the big picture. The reality is that the point when one falls back into one’s old behavior isn’t the start of the relapse – it is actually the end of the relapse. The issues that contribute to the negative behavior have probably been present for a while before the relapse manifested itself. It’s just that they were hidden below the surface, and hence not observable.

Understanding How Relapses Occur

Let me do a breakdown of a relapse process so you know what I mean. I’ll use the example of drinking, though this applies to any other “relapse”-type situations, like emotional eating, junk food eating, smoking, depression, slipping into bad habits, losing grip of good habits (say exercising, healthy eating, waking early, consistent studying), bad temper, overwhelm from stress, and so on.

Jane has a drinking problem. She is not an alcoholic, but she drinks a lot, sometimes uncontrollably. She knows that drinking is not good for her and she wants to stop drinking permanently.

So she starts turning to healthier beverages, such as water, real fruit juices and green juices. She removes all alcoholic drinks from her house. She stops going to parties where there are people drinking, so she will not be tempted. She stocks her home with fresh natural fruits so she can blend her own drinks. She switches over to this new, healthy  habit with relative ease.

Occasionally she thinks about drinking. This ranges from a fleeting thought to an overwhelming urge. But since there are no drinks in her home, she has nothing to drink even when she wants to. She either suppresses the urge or forces herself to go to sleep. This continues for the next few weeks.

After 1 month of sobriety, she is invited to a party one day. She thought: “I’ve been doing so well in the past month. I should be alright in this party.” As it turns out, she decides to have a sip of wine while she is there, so that she does not stick out like a sore thumb. A sip turns to a glass, which turns to 2 glasses, then 3 glasses, then 4 and 5. She gets back to drinking after that, since she has already ruined her sobriety. This goes on for a short while before she tries to be sober again.

Here, it looks like the relapse happened during the party. However, the relapse happened way before that – probably some time before the first thoughts of drinking surfaced in her mind.

Even though Jane technically did not drink during those moments, the surfacing of those thoughts suggested she was losing control of the situation. However, she did not do anything about those thoughts – instead ignoring the signs and occupying herself with other things. In the end, the issue became compounded and she ended her sobriety. It looked like the “relapse” could have been easily avoided if she did not attend her party, but the slip was already a long time coming. Attending the party was merely the final straw.

By the time she had her first sip, the situation was already too far gone for her to do anything about it. The mental floodgates were wide open and the water was gushing everywhere. All she could do was merely ride on the waves and act out her urges.

This brings to mind this Chinese fable I read when I was young. Two groups of animals were doing a tug-of-war and it was a tie between them. The rat joined Team A which tipped the scales in the team’s favor and they ended up winning. When the rat tried to claim credit for the victory, the other animals corrected him by saying it was a team work effort. He wasn’t the sole reason for the victory. If he was the lone member in Team A doing the tug-of-war with Team B, he would never have won.


The point at which Jane could have remedied the situation would be right at the beginning, when the thoughts first surfaced. Why were the thoughts of drinking surfacing in her mind? What did they represent? Did she do something that triggered those thoughts? What could she do about that? These are questions she should have reflected on right there and then.

In doing so, she would have nipped the problem in the bud and prevented herself from a crazy blood bath later on. If the thoughts were to resurface again later on, it was merely a sign of an impending relapse and there was more steps to be taken to properly recover. Her thoughts would serve as a helpful indicator to prevent the actual, physical relapse – rather than waiting until it was too late to fix the situation.

Example: Emotional Eating

Let me use another example, which is my emotional eating. I have written extensively about my emotional eating issues in How to Overcome Emotional Eating (6-part series), which I recommend you to read if you have difficulty sticking to healthy eating patterns.

Looking back at my past emotional eating episodes, they could be described as sudden frenzies of uncontrollable eating, usually of junk food, that tainted my healthy eating endeavors. They tended to occur at night and would last for the next couple of days until I got a hold of myself and “restarted” my eating by starting anew the next day. Before these bingeing episodes though, I would usually be eating perfectly healthy meals with no problem at all.

If I was to perceive the bingeing episodes as the issue, I would be locking all the food in cabinets every night – and perhaps even be sleeping early every day so I wouldn’t run the risk of bingeing at night. However, this would not solve anything because firstly, I could not lock away all the food in my household – there was too much food. And it was not like I could do that without affecting others – I lived (and still live) with my parents and brother. Secondly, logic would be thrown out of the window during my frenzy EE moments. If I were to lock the food in cabinets (which I never did because it was pointless like I said previously), I could easily unlock them. Even if I managed to to control myself and not unlock the cabinets, I could easily walk to a 24-hour store and buy food, usually the worse kinds, to eat.

Clearly, the bingeing episodes were not the issue as much as they were only a reflection of an underlying issue.

In How I Overcame Emotional Eating, Part 1: Food as a Symbol of Love, I shared that a big part of my emotional eating was the result of seeing food as a symbol of love. Hence, whenever I binge ate in the past, it was because I lacked love (self-love). It was not specifically the point when I binge ate that this happened though – It was the compounded effect of forcing myself to do things, depriving myself, being harsh on myself, and neglecting my needs throughout the day(s) that eventually led me to “slip” and binge eat at night.

The “relapse”, the bingeing, was in the making long before the first uncontrollable bite occurred. That first bite merely represented the point at which my conscious self was no longer able to hold things together anymore – during which the problem then spilled over to reality.


By recognizing this, I was able to identify the points at which the real relapse for my emotional eating began – which would be the times when I neglected my needs and made myself do things I didn’t want to. By working on that, I was then able to address my emotional eating issue.

How to Prevent a Relapse: Recognize When It Really Begins

Most people with addiction problems check into rehabilitation clinics when their addictions resurface. However, that’s when the problem is too far gone. They should be looking for help long before that.

When you only wait until your relapse occurs before you fix the issue, that’s way too late. Not only do you have to fix the problem, you have to deal with the sticky aftermath of the situation, and the disappointment of having a relapse. Secondly, you have to chase the problem at its tail, rather than getting a leg up on the issue. Last but not least, you don’t deal with the root of the issue, but rather, its effect.

Trace Your Relapses

Think about a bad habit or practice you have which you have been trying to remove.

Now, consider the following questions:

  1. When’s the last time you did that?
  2. Tracing back, when do you think the relapse really started?
  3. What can you do to prevent this bad habit or practice from occurring in the future?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments section.

Check out this related article:


Image: Relapse

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