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Substance Use Blog Series: Learning from Setbacks

Today’s Substance Use Blog Series post is about Learning from Setbacks. Recovery setbacks are usually defined as actions or periods of time spent not following the plan you previously set out for your recovery. These can include physical lapses or relapses that go against your plan.

We have written about relapse prevention in a past post, where we go through the three stages of relapse. In this post, we are primarily focusing on physical relapse, which is the last of the stages. A relapse prevention plan is an important proactive step to take, as it can help to prevent a physical relapse from occurring in the first place, and/or strengthen your ability to see personal warning signs. Coming up with a plan like this also highlights the aspects of your life that strengthen your recovery, which helps narrow your priorities to ones that keep you on your recovery path. 

If/When Encountering a Setback

This post contains suggestions for how to cope if you encounter a setback, which can come in the form of a physical lapse or relapse. A lapse refers to a “slip-up” – it can involve a brief return to use that is realized and reversed, resulting in a return to the original recovery plan. A relapse on the other hand, refers to full-blown and ongoing return to use or abandonment of the recovery plan [1]. 

If either of these scenarios happen, it is important to assess your own current level of awareness. You may feel very aware of your setback and feel strongly about returning to your recovery path, or you may have only a mild desire to return to it. The fact that you have sought out this post points to some desire to return to recovery, so if it is difficult to find an inner drive, you can start with that.

Experiencing a setback can involve many conflicting emotions and worries, both on your own part and on the part of loved ones.

When experiencing conflicting emotions, it can be difficult to tune into your body and intuition. Grounding can help bring you to the present and calm your nervous system, so you feel calm enough to think through your next moves logically and in ways that are in tune with your needs.

In this post we go through grounding techniques specifically for cravings, but the same skills can be used in any context. When you are not grounded in your body and present experience, it is easier to be swept away by worries and other conflicting thoughts and feelings. Because of this, taking steps to ground yourself in the present moment is vital. 

It is common for self-judgment to be present during setbacks. These judgments may cause you to feel shame or anger towards yourself for your setback, which can get in the way of staying in the present moment. The first step to addressing this judgment is to acknowledge it’s there. This may seem contradictory, but simply pushing it out of your mind will not actually get rid of it. The best bet is to include it in your grounding process so you know it’s there, and accept it without judging the judgment. After this, it can become easier to discern ways in which those judgments are harmful, because you will see them for what they are. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this further in the following video:

Knowing you are not Starting at Square one again

Once you feel more in tune with your present experience, then you can start assessing the situation and planning your next steps. As said above, judgment or self-blame can happen quite commonly during setbacks. There can also be a level of frustration because it may feel like you are starting over again. While it is inevitably taxing to switch paths and change your habits again, it is important to know you are not starting at the exact same place you were at the beginning of your recovery, even if it feels that way.

Every period of time that you either abstained from substances or controlled your use, you learned things about yourself and what it is like to live in recovery. No one and nothing can take that knowledge and growth away from you.

We illustrate this with the following visual:

Explore and Strengthen what you Learned before the Lapse

Reflecting on the things you have learned about yourself during your recovery thus far can be a good way of building your self-esteem and reminding yourself why you had your recovery plan in the first place. It can also highlight your strengths and drives for growth that are sometimes difficult to see when dealing with conflicting circumstances and emotions. This can be done through journaling, or speaking with a loved one. It may be worth reflecting on the following questions:

  •  What part of myself allowed me to reach recovery goals in the past? What trait was driving me?
  •  What did following my recovery plan add to my life and experiences?
  •  What did I learn about myself while sober or controlling use? 
  •  What did I learn about the world while sober or controlling use?

Getting Back on your Recovery Plan or Changing it

At this point you may be considering getting back onto your recovery path or reassessing your plan. Using a decisional-balance sheet can be helpful when making choices like these. We have included a blank template here that you can use. While working through this worksheet, you can reflect on the pros and cons of either making a change (ie. returning to your recovery plan or reassessing it) vs. not making a change (ie. continuing to use). Sometimes writing out the possible outcomes can provide some clarity, especially when experiencing mixed emotions.

If you decide to return to your recovery plan or make a new one, it is often helpful to make another relapse prevention plan. When doing this, you can refer to this setback and note personal warning signs that you can look for in the future. 

Setbacks can be difficult and discouraging, but they also hold opportunities to learn more about yourself and your processes.


Whatever the outcome of these explorations is, connecting with a supportive community can be very powerful when dealing with setbacks. If you have a relapse prevention plan, you likely already have a list of contacts you can reach out to. There are also many mutual aid groups that provide support for times like these. If you already have a preferred group, you could attend one of these to share your current experience and struggles. If you have not attended one before, you can explore the following blog posts where we have outlined the values and approach of each one: 

Mutual Aid Groups part I (SMART Recovery and the 12-steps)

Mutual Aid Groups part II (16-steps and LifeRing)

Mutual Aid Groups part III (Recovery Dharma and Moderation Management)



[1] Hendershot, C. S., Witkiewitz, K., George, W. H., & Marlatt, G. A. (2011). Relapse prevention for addictive behaviors. Substance Abuse Treatment Prevention and Policy, 6(1). 

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