Relapse prevention PMC

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For example, an individual who has successfully abstained from alcohol, after having one beer, may drink an entire case of beer, thinking that since he or she has “fallen off the wagon,” he or she might as well go the whole way. When an abstinence violation occurs, the attributions an individual makes play an important part in determining the trajectory of subsequent use. When abstinence violation occurs, individuals typically enter a state of cognitive dissonance, defined as an aversive experience resulting from the discrepancy created by having two or more simultaneous and inconsistent cognitions. Abstinence violators realize that their actions (e.g. “I drank”) do not line up with their personal goal (e.g. “I want to abstain”) and feel compelled to resolve the discrepancy. In this case, individuals try to explain to themselves why they violated their goal of abstinence. If the reason for the violation is attributed to internal, stable, and/or global factors, such as lack of willpower or possession of an underlying disease, then the individual is more likely to have a full-blown relapse after the initial violation occurs.

  • In its original form, RP aims to reduce risk of relapse by teaching participants cognitive and behavioral skills for coping in high-risk situations (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985).
  • This isn’t the only way in which our thinking might become twisted when we experience a lapse in sobriety.
  • Inaction has typically been interpreted as the acceptance of substance cues which can be described as “letting go” and not acting on an urge.
  • If an individual uses a substance after experiencing a remission, he/she may be vulnerable to the abstinence violation effect (AVE), which refers to an individual’s response to the recognition that he/she has broken a self-imposed rule by engaging in substance use or other unwanted behavior.
  • As of 2020, the number of drug-involved overdose deaths reached an all-time high of 91,799, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Next, we review other established SUD treatment models that are compatible with non-abstinence goals. We focus our review on two well-studied approaches that were initially conceptualized – and have been frequently discussed in the empirical literature – as client-centered alternatives to abstinence-based treatment. Of note, other SUD treatment approaches that could be adapted to target nonabstinence goals (e.g., contingency management, behavioral activation) are excluded from the current review due to lack of relevant empirical evidence. Individuals with fewer years of addiction and lower severity SUDs generally have the highest likelihood of achieving moderate, low-consequence substance use after treatment (Öjehagen & Berglund, 1989; Witkiewitz, 2008). Notably, these individuals are also most likely to endorse nonabstinence goals (Berglund et al., 2019; Dunn & Strain, 2013; Lozano et al., 2006; Lozano et al., 2015; Mowbray et al., 2013). In contrast, individuals with greater SUD severity, who are more likely to have abstinence goals, generally have the best outcomes when working toward abstinence (Witkiewitz, 2008).


The results of the Sobell’s studies challenged the prevailing understanding of abstinence as the only acceptable outcome for SUD treatment and raised a number of conceptual and methodological issues (e.g., the Sobell’s liberal definition of controlled drinking; see McCrady, 1985). A “controlled drinking controversy” followed, in which the Sobells as well as those who supported them were publicly criticized due to their claims about controlled drinking, and the validity of their research called into question (Blume, 2012; Pendery, Maltzman, & West, 1982). Despite the intense controversy, the Sobell’s high-profile research paved the way for additional studies of nonabstinence treatment for AUD in the 1980s and later (Blume, 2012; Sobell & Sobell, 1995). Marlatt, in particular, became well known for developing nonabstinence treatments, such as BASICS for college drinking (Marlatt et al., 1998) and Relapse Prevention (Marlatt & Gordon, 1985). Like the Sobells, Marlatt showed that reductions in drinking and harm were achievable in nonabstinence treatments (Marlatt & Witkiewitz, 2002). AA was established in 1935 as a nonprofessional mutual aid group for people who desire abstinence from alcohol, and its 12 Steps became integrated in SUD treatment programs in the 1940s and 1950s with the emergence of the Minnesota Model of treatment (White & Kurtz, 2008).

While also directing all aspects of HR including payroll, benefits administration, performance management, and compliance with federal, state, and local employment laws, as well as licensing and accreditation standards. He calls this “urge surfing.” Instead of denying our addictive nature or hating ourselves for it, we learn to keep living in spite of it. This is easier when utilizing a technique which Marlatt refers to as SOBER—Stop, abstinence violation effect definition Observe (our thoughts and emotions), Breathe, Expand (our awareness and our comprehension of potential consequences if we use), and Respond mindfully (make the right choice not to use). Data on age, gender, ethnicity, education, and income were collected, as were measures of daily smoking rate, number of past quit attempts, and the Fagerstrom Test for Nicotine Dependence (FTND; Heatherton, Kozlowski, Frecker & Fagerstrom, 1991).

Cognitive Processes

Rather, when people with SUD are surveyed about reasons they are not in treatment, not being ready to stop using substances is consistently the top reason cited, even among individuals who perceive a need for treatment (SAMHSA, 2018, 2019a). Even among those who do perceive a need for treatment, less than half (40%) make any effort to get it (SAMHSA, 2019a). Although reducing practical barriers to treatment is essential, evidence suggests that these barriers do not fully account for low rates of treatment utilization.

A focus of relapse-prevention treatment has been on helping those who lapse manage the AVE and maintain or reestablish abstinence from the undesired behavior. Multiple versions of harm reduction psychotherapy for alcohol and drug use have been described in detail but not yet studied empirically. However, to date there have been no published empirical trials testing the effectiveness of the approach. A number of studies have examined psychosocial risk reduction interventions for individuals with high-risk drug use, especially people who inject drugs. In contrast to the holistic approach of harm reduction psychotherapy, risk reduction interventions are generally designed to target specific HIV risk behaviors (e.g., injection or sexual risk behaviors) without directly addressing mechanisms of SUD, and thus are quite limited in scope. However, these interventions also typically lack an abstinence focus and sometimes result in reductions in drug use.

Cognitive Behavioral Treatments for Substance Use Disorders

Several studies over the past two decades have evaluated the reliability and predictive validity2 of the RP model as well as the efficacy of treatment techniques based on this model. One recent large-scale research effort assessing the RP model was the Relapse Replication and Extension Project (RREP), which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (Lowman et al. 1996). Even when alcohol’s perceived positive effects are based on actual drug effects, often only the immediate effects are positive (e.g., euphoria), whereas the delayed effects are negative (e.g., sleepiness), particularly at higher alcohol doses.

  • A specific process has been described regarding attributions that follow relapse after an extended period of abstinence or moderation.
  • Motivation enhancement therapy (MET) is a brief, program of two to four sessions, usually held before other treatment approaches, so as to enhance treatment response24.
  • Harm reduction psychotherapies, for example, incorporate multiple modalities that have been most extensively studied as abstinence-focused SUD treatments (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy; mindfulness).
  • For instance, some studies have shown abstinence isn’t as effective when used as the only form of education to reduce rates of teen pregnancy, and a 2011 study found abstinence-only state policies regarding sex ed were positively correlated with high rates of teen pregnancy.
  • Various psychological factors were significant in initiating and maintaining Rajiv’s dependence on alcohol.

While analysing high-risk situations the client is asked to generate a list of situations that are low-risk, and to determine what aspects of those situations differentiate them from the high-risk situations. High-risk situations are determined by an analysis of previous lapses and by reports of situations in which the client feels or felt “tempted.” Appropriate responses are those behaviours that lead to avoidance of high-risk situations, or behaviours that foster adaptive responses. Seemingly irrelevant decisions (SIDs) are those behaviours that are early in the path of decisions that place the client in a high-risk situation. For example, if the client understands that using alcohol in the day time triggers a binge, agreeing for a meeting in the afternoon in a restaurant that serves alcohol would be a SID5.

Treatment strategies in the relapse prevention

Therapy focuses on providing the individual the necessary skills to prevent a lapse from escalating into a relapse31. These covert antecedents include lifestyle factors, such as overall stress level, one’s temperament and personality, as well as cognitive factors. These may serve to set up a relapse, for example, using rationalization, denial, or a desire for immediate gratification. Lifestyle factors have been proposed as the covert antecedents most strongly related to the risk of relapse.

abstinence violation effect definition