Lapse vs Relapse: The Difference

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When it comes to addiction recovery, many people use the term “relapse” anytime someone returns to using the substance that led to their addiction. But this isn’t always the right term. Lapse is another word used in these situations, and it needs to be differentiated to help people on their path to recovery.

We have shared the distinctions between the two and the steps someone can take to avoid them. Keep reading to learn more.

What Is a Lapse?

A lapse occurs when someone in recovery comes back to using drugs, alcohol, and other substances. However, they will stop after a short time and return on the path to recovery. This is also called a slip — a temporary failure in their judgment and concentration. If they retract the use of these substances, then the lapse is merely a setback. But some may continue and slide back to addiction. This is called a relapse.

What Is a Relapse? 

A relapse happens when someone fully returns to using the substances that led to their addiction. Unlike a lapse, relapse is long-term and continues to do so until they seek help again. This causes the individual to lose all the progress they’ve made on the path to recovery. If they do want to eventually eliminate the habit and get the help they need, they will begin again at square one.

Lapse vs Relapse

While both lapse and relapse involve the resumption of drug or alcohol use, the biggest difference is the time period. As mentioned, a lapse is a temporary slip in judgment. It’s normal to face setbacks on the road to recovery. Whether this lapse will end or become a full-blown relapse will depend on several factors, including the person’s fortitude and will.

Another similarity between a lapse and relapse is that they’re both dangerous. During the path to recovery, the body will start readjusting to normal activity. So if someone uses a substance in the same amounts they had during the height of their addiction, then they’re in danger of overdosing. The body may no longer be able to handle it. That’s why it’s important to be open about lapses as it may save a person’s life.

What Can Cause Someone to Lapse or Relapse?

One important thing to remember is that a lapse or relapse isn’t a moral failing or a sign of weakness. During substance abuse, the chemicals alter the brain and how it functions. It adjusts itself so that it can work normally in the presence of these substances. 

So recovering from drug addiction isn’t merely a battle of will and fortitude. People will face withdrawal symptoms, and think that the only thing that can help them are the substances that led to their addiction in the first place. The brain wants it, making cravings almost insatiable.

Fighting these overwhelming urges is difficult, so it’s not uncommon for individuals to lapse. But they will need to make the effort and focus on their goal in order to remain sober and recover fully. It will take a while for the brain to rewire itself and return to more normal functioning.

Preventing Lapse and Relapse: Strategies and Approaches

Acceptance That Lapses Can Happen

If someone is in recovery, it’s important for them to understand that lapses can happen. It can occur anytime and be triggered by even the smallest factors. Knowing this will help one  take the steps to prevent lapses and relapses from happening.


Many people fall back into abusing substances because of turbulent mental and emotional states. So it’s important for them to maintain good eating habits, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep, and try other activities that enrich their bodies and mind.

Getting Support

The journey to recovery isn’t something that people should go through alone. They’re much better off with a support system of friends, family, therapists, and groups who can understand their struggles and provide help if needed.

Recover With a Rehabilitation Facility Today

Lapses and relapses are just setbacks on someone’s road to recovery. What’s important is that these people get the help they need. If you or someone you love wants to begin their path to sobriety, contact us today.

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According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in 2023, scientists combed through genomic data of over one million people and identified genes
According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in 2023, scientists combed through genomic data of over one million people and identified genes
According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in 2023, scientists combed through genomic data of over one million people and identified genes

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