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How Prevalent is Self-Harm in Relapse?

Updated: Feb 16

Self-harm, a deeply personal struggle for many, often intertwines with the journey of relapse, presenting a unique challenge in the recovery process. Whether it's cutting, burning, or other forms of self-injury, these behaviors can resurface during times of stress, triggering a cycle that's difficult to break.

Today, we're exploring the prevalence of self-harm in relapse, shedding light on this often misunderstood aspect of addiction recovery. From understanding the underlying factors to exploring coping mechanisms and seeking support, we'll delve into the nuances of this issue with compassion and insight.

Join us as we navigate through the complexities of self-harm in relapse, offering understanding, empathy, and hope for those on the path to healing.

Understanding Relapse

Relapse is a term commonly associated with addiction recovery, but its significance extends beyond the mere recurrence of substance use. It represents a multifaceted phenomenon encompassing physical, psychological, and behavioral aspects.

At its core, relapse refers to the return to addictive behaviors or substance use following a period of abstinence or sobriety. It's essential to recognize that relapse is not a sign of failure but rather a typical and often expected part of the recovery process. Understanding what constitutes a relapse and its potential triggers is crucial for individuals in recovery, as well as for their loved ones and support networks.

Relapse can manifest in various forms, including:

  • Physical Relapse: This occurs when an individual engages in the actual consumption of drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence. It's the most recognizable form of relapse and often serves as a clear indicator that additional support and intervention may be needed.

  • Emotional Relapse: Emotional relapse involves the onset of negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that may eventually lead to a return to substance use. These emotions, such as anger, frustration, or sadness, can create internal turmoil and increase vulnerability to relapse if left unaddressed.

  • Mental Relapse: Mental relapse is characterized by a psychological tug-of-war between the desire to remain sober and the temptation to revert to old patterns of substance use. Individuals in this stage may experience cravings, rationalizations, or fantasies about using drugs or alcohol, even as they strive to maintain their sobriety.

Factors Leading to Relapse

Source: Pexels

Relapse, simply put, refers to the recurrence of addictive behaviors or substance use after a period of abstinence. It's crucial to recognize that relapse isn't a moral failure or a sign of weakness but rather a common challenge faced by many individuals in recovery.


One of the key factors contributing to relapse is the presence of triggers. Triggers can be internal or external stimuli that evoke cravings or negative emotions, leading individuals to revert to their addictive behaviors. These triggers vary from person to person and can include stress, environmental cues, interpersonal conflicts, or even certain emotions like loneliness or anxiety.

Mental Health Challenges

Additionally, underlying mental health issues often play a significant role in the relapse process. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, trauma, or personality disorders can exacerbate vulnerability to substance use and self-harm behaviors. Addressing these co-occurring disorders is essential for maintaining long-term recovery.

Lack of Support

Finally, the lack of adequate support systems can also contribute to relapse. Recovery is a journey that requires ongoing support from peers, family, therapists, and support groups. Without a strong support network in place, individuals may feel isolated, overwhelmed, or unable to cope with the challenges of recovery, increasing the risk of relapse.

Prevalence of Self-Harm in Relapse

A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that individuals with a history of self-harm are at an increased risk of relapse following treatment for substance use disorders. The researchers noted that self-harm behaviors often serve as maladaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with distressing emotions. 

When faced with triggers or stressors, individuals may turn to substances as a means of self-medication, thereby perpetuating the cycle of addiction.

The findings revealed that individuals who engaged in self-harm behaviors were more likely to experience relapse within the first year following treatment compared to those without a history of self-harm. Furthermore, the study highlighted the importance of addressing underlying psychological issues, such as depression and trauma, in reducing the risk of both self-harm and relapse.

The connection between relapse and self-harm is multifaceted. For many individuals, self-harm serves as a coping mechanism for managing overwhelming emotions, trauma, or distress. However, when coupled with addiction, self-harm can exacerbate feelings of shame, guilt, and hopelessness, further fueling the cycle of substance use and self-destructive behaviors.

Psychological Aspects

Coping Mechanisms in Recovery

Source: Pexels

The psychological aspects of self-harm in relapse are intricate. Many individuals turn to self-harm as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions, trauma, or distress. In the context of addiction recovery, unresolved psychological issues can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and trigger relapse. Addressing underlying mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, and trauma, is crucial for breaking the cycle of self-harm and addiction. 

Therapeutic interventions, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and build resilience against relapse triggers. 

Additionally, cultivating self-awareness and mindfulness practices can empower individuals to navigate their emotions more effectively and make informed choices in their recovery journey.

Risk Factors

Here are the following risk factors when an individual relapses:

  • History of Self-Harm: Individuals with a history of self-harm are at an increased risk of relapse, as self-harm behaviors often serve as maladaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with distressing emotions.

  • Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders: Conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD) can exacerbate vulnerability to both self-harm and relapse.

  • Unresolved Trauma: Traumatic experiences from the past can contribute to the development of self-harm behaviors and increase susceptibility to relapse in individuals struggling with addiction.

  • Lack of Coping Skills: Insufficient coping mechanisms for managing stress, emotions, and triggers can leave individuals ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of recovery, increasing the likelihood of relapse.

  • Social Isolation: Limited social support networks and feelings of loneliness can heighten feelings of vulnerability and contribute to relapse among individuals recovering from addiction and self-harm.

  • Environmental Triggers: Exposure to environments or situations associated with past substance use or self-harm can trigger cravings and exacerbate the risk of relapse.

  • Poor Treatment Adherence: Non-compliance with treatment plans, including medication regimens and therapy sessions, can impede recovery efforts and increase susceptibility to relapse.

Prevention and Intervention

Mental Health Relapse Statistics

Source: Pexels

Preventing relapse and addressing self-harm in the context of addiction recovery requires a multifaceted approach. It begins with a comprehensive assessment and treatment of underlying mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and trauma. 

Therapeutic interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and reduce the risk of self-harm and relapse. 

Building a solid support network of peers, family, and professionals is essential for providing ongoing encouragement and accountability. 

Additionally, implementing relapse prevention strategies, such as identifying triggers, developing coping skills, and creating a structured daily routine, can empower individuals to successfully navigate recovery challenges. Early intervention and proactive support are key to promoting long-term sobriety and well-being.


In conclusion, the prevalence of self-harm in relapse underscores the complex nature of addiction recovery. Understanding the interconnectedness of self-harm and relapse is crucial for developing effective prevention and intervention strategies.

By addressing underlying psychological issues, identifying triggers, and building a solid support network, individuals can empower themselves to navigate the challenges of recovery and reduce the risk of relapse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction and self-harm, know that you're not alone. Seeking professional help is the first step toward healing and recovery. Cielo Treatment Center in Portland, OR, offers comprehensive addiction treatment programs tailored to individual needs. Reach out today to start your journey toward a healthier, happier life.

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