Recognizing Symptoms Leading to Relapse

Even though it is up to the individual to maintain the disciplines that insure sobriety, other people can help.

Nearly every person close to an alcoholic is able to recognize behavior changes that indicate a return to old thinking.

Often these individuals and fellow A.A. members have tried to warn the subject, who by now, may not be willing to listen. He/she may consider it nagging or a violation of his/her privacy.

Warning signs abound. Most alcoholics, if approached properly, are willing to go over an inventory of symptoms periodically with a spouse or other confidante.

If the symptoms are caught early enough and recognized, the alcoholic will usually try to change his/her thinking, to get “back on the beam” again.

A weekly inventory could prevent some relapses. This added discipline is one, which many alcoholics seem willing to try.

Following is a list of common symptoms leading to “dry-drunk,” to possible relapse or, to what A.A. commonly calls “stinking thinking.”

  • Exhaustion – Some people allow themselves to become overly tired or in poor health. Some alcoholics are also prone to work addictions; perhaps they are in a hurry to make up for lost time. Good health and enough rest are important. If you feel good, you are more apt to think well. Feel poor and your thinking is apt to deteriorate. Feel bad enough and you might begin thinking drinking couldn’t make it any worse.
  • Dishonesty – This behavior begins with a pattern of unnecessary little lies and deceits with fellow workers, friends and family. This symptom is called rationalizing – making excuses for not doing what you do not want to do, or for doing what you know you should not do.
  • Impatience – The individual thinks that things are not happening fast enough or others are not doing what the alcoholic wants them to do.
  • Argumentativeness – Arguing small and ridiculous points of view indicates a need to always be right. “Why don’t you be reasonable and agree with me?” It could be looking for an excuse to drink?
  • Depression – Unreasonable and unacceptable despair may occur in cycles and should be dealt with and talked about.
  • Frustration – This reaction is directed at people and also because things may not be going the person’s way. Remember – everything is not going to be just the way you want it.
  • Self-Pity – “Why do these things happen to me?” “Why must I be alcoholic?” Nobody appreciates all I am doing (for them)!”
  • Cockiness – A feeling of “I’ve got it made and no longer fear alcoholism”–could lead to going into drinking situations to prove to others they have no problem. Do this often enough and it will wear down defenses
  • Complacency – “Drinking was the farthest thing from my mind.” Not drinking is no longer a conscious thought. It is dangerous to let up on disciplines because everything is going well. To have a little fear is always a good thing. More relapses occur when things are going well than otherwise
  • Expecting too much from others – “I’ve changed; why hasn’t everyone else?” It’s a plus if they do, but still your problem if they do not. They may not trust you yet and may be still looking for further proof. You cannot expect others to change their lifestyles just because you have.
  • Letting up on disciplines – Prayer, meditation, daily inventory, A.A. attendance. Either complacency or boredom can be a cause. An alcoholic cannot afford to get bored with the program. The cost of relapse is always too great.
  • Use of mood-altering chemicals – The person may feel the need to ease things with a pill and the doctor may go along with it. Chemicals other than alcohol may not have been a problem in the past, but people can easily lose sobriety starting this way. It is about the most subtle way to have relapse. The reverse of this situation is true for drug-dependent people who start to drink.
  • Wanting too much – It’s important not to set goals too high and to take one step at a time and keep long distance goals flexible.


When an alcoholic is in recovery, he or she may feel alone. They may feel like no one truly understands what they are going through. They learn very fast who their real friends are and who is just along for the party. A lot of inspirational material exists on the road to recovery.

Here are three quotes that may help.

“One small crack does not mean that you are broken, it means that you were put to the test and you didn’t fall apart.” – Linda Poindexter

Who knows better than what it feels like to be broken? The wonderful thing is that you have survived. Not only have you survived, but you continue to fight. There is no shame in that at all. There is so much life left ahead of you. Don’t let the past deter you

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Your addiction is evidence that your old way of thinking is not good for you. That old way of thinking included hurting yourself and your loved ones through substance use. Now that you are committed to a clean and sober lifestyle, you have to adopt new methods and ways of thinking that will support your new life.

“Never quit. If you stumble, get back up. What happened yesterday no longer matters. Today is another day so get on track and move closer to your dreams and goals. You can do it.” – Unknown

Addiction and recovery treatment is not easy. The sober road is not a smooth one; there will be bumps, cliffs, potholes, hurdles and all kinds of obstacles along the way. There will be people that support you in the beginning and there will be people who are just waiting for you to mess up along the way.

The thing to remember is that you are going to stumble. You are going to mess up. You are going to get discouraged. The important part is that you just keep on pushing. Leave all of your yesterdays behind and concentrate on a better today. You can do it. All you have to do is find your inspiration.

Exhausted man photo available from Shutterstock

Recognizing Symptoms Leading to Relapse

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in northern Michigan who has a passion for reading, writing, music and helping others. He specializes in counseling complex family situations, substance abuse, and parenting. Steve’s counseling philosophy is holistic, approaching each issue on its own merit and evaluating influences to help overcome life’s dilemmas.


APA Reference
Greenman, S. (2015). Recognizing Symptoms Leading to Relapse. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Nov 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Nov 2015
Published on All rights reserved.