Lapse vs Relapse: What’s The Difference?

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Maintaining sobriety is the central goal for individuals at every stage of recovery.  ‘Relapse’ tends to be the first thought that comes to mind when imagining someone about to “fall off the wagon”. Conversely, newer on the scene is the idea of considering a slip up with alcohol or drugs as a ‘lapse’  rather than the aforementioned term that often contains a whole host of negative impressions. A lapse means making a mistake without going into a full-blown relapse. Being able to distinguish the difference in the moment can help reign in your behavior and inform your recovery.

Let’s Define It

Looking at the Oxford Dictionary, relapse is defined as “a deterioration in someone’s state of health after a temporary improvement”; whereas, a lapse is defined as “a temporary failure of concentration, memory, or judgment”. There is a very different tone underlying these two terms. Relapse is referring to a pattern of going back into old behavior which can lead to potential consequences. Lapse, on the other hand, is more focused on a momentary misjudgment with corrective action.

What Does It Look Like?

A lapse or a relapse can come from the same triggers, the major determining factor being the response to the triggers and subsequent actions. Let’s say you decide to go to a get together with some friends. Once you arrive, you find out there are people you don’t know who brought some beer. The beginning of a lapse or relapse can look the same, as each is dependent upon deciding to have that first drink. This action could be due to thoughts like ‘I can have just one’ or a trigger such as being anxious meeting new people. The differences start to appear when a person who has a lapse recognizes the behavior and stops drinking before it becomes problematic and turns back to recovery skills like calling their sponsor. A person who relapses continues to use and regresses to behaviors of addiction such as lying or ignoring responsibilities before hopefully returning to recovery.


Building self-awareness of your needs, triggers, and warning behavior is your most useful ally in helping a slip remain a lapse or avoiding use entirely. Relapse often happens over time, well before the drug or alcohol is used, so creating positive habits in daily life can help reduce risk. Developing a healthy lifestyle, finding ways to have fun sober, changing thinking patterns, and knowing that cravings will pass can all help strengthen recovery. 

It’s okay to be uncomfortable, as there will be difficult times in this journey. Choosing not to numb out by addressing your true needs is a big step. Lastly, building your support system and being willing to ask for help can allow others to give feedback and offer encouragement makes a difference.

Hope in Recovery

Having a lapse or a relapse are both something that a person in recovery can come back from. There can be the misconception of ‘if I make one mistake then I am back at square one’.  This type of shame-based thinking can change a slip up to a full relapse. 

Both experiencing a lapse, or even a relapse can be an opportunity for a powerful learning moment exploring what happened and what could have helped prevent the use or lessen the damage. Developing an understanding of yourself, your triggers, and perceptions of recovery can help alleviate some of the tension surrounding abstinence.

When you live in a supportive recovery community like Launch Centers, you will have access to a community of others who will help support your relapse prevention plan, and encourage you to make choices consistent with your journey towards sobriety. Call us today to learn more!

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