What is the Abstinence Violation Effect and How Can it Hurt Recovery?

Michelle Rosenker

August 16, 2019

Being in recovery from drugs or alcohol addiction teaches people many things, including some of life’s most important lessons. As people progress in their recovery process, they will learn more about themselves as sober individuals, allowing them to truly flourish as substance-free people.

This does not mean there is a straight line to successful recovery. There are many missteps and mistakes that a person can make on the way. The most important thing to remember when experiencing challenges in recovery is to accept them and find healthy ways to get past them so that the recovery can continue. For some, this process is difficult to grasp, and this difficulty can lead to major setbacks, including relapse.

Relapse is a normal part of any disease, addiction included. Everyone in recovery is aware that relapse can happen no matter how long he or she has been sober. Working to prevent relapse and developing a plan when relapse occurs is the best defense, but not everyone in recovery focuses on it.

Unfortunately, many people relapse. Some relapse just once and get right back on their feet, while others relapse and spiral back into their active addiction. Those who relapse and do not regain their footing may be experiencing something called “the abstinence violation effect.”

What is the Abstinence Violation Effect?

The abstinence violation effect, is different from the typical relapse. Someone experiencing the abstinence violation effect will relapse, then struggle to get sober again because of how they perceive they are perceiving their relapse, and themselves.

According to Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model, abstinence violation effect is defined by one’s response to the relapse. Someone struggling with the abstinence violation effect will relapse and then do one or more of the following:

  • Blame the relapse on personal failures, triggering a sense of guilt and other negative emotions
  • Blame the relapse on uncontrollable factors such as a lack of willpower
  • Blame the relapse on not being able to properly cope with the situation that made them relapse

When one of these occurs, the person who has relapsed experiences a twisted mindset that has him or her thinking that, since relapse has already occurred, there is no point in stopping their use now or trying to salvage their recovery. This mindset is not only unhealthy, it is also deadly, as it can cause an individual to quickly spiral into hardcore substance abuse which could result in death.

Relapse Prevention

How Can the Abstinence Violation Effect Hinder Recovery?

Whenever a relapse occurs, a person’s recovery is negatively impacted. What that person does after the relapse occurs can, and usually does, reroute his or her journey in recovery either positively or negatively.

The abstinence violation effect causes people who have relapsed to avoid owning up to the relapse and working to achieve sobriety again. Instead, those experiencing this effect can fall quickly down the rabbit hole.

The abstinence violation effect jeopardizes and hurts one’s recovery in a number of ways:

  • Erodes self-esteem. Someone struggling with the abstinence recovery effect tends to blame him or herself for the relapse and every subsequent use that occurs after the initial relapse. This blame game erodes at one’s self-esteem, as feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness set in. With little to no self-esteem, overcoming active addiction can have the added challenge of depression, requiring professional therapy.
  • Prevents the development of coping skills. When the abstinence violation effect is occurring, the user is already blaming his or her lack of coping skills for the relapse. As the use continues, it is unlikely that any work is being done to reestablish old skills or develop new ones, which robs the user from the opportunity to overcome situations that can continually trigger substance abuse.
  • Encourages denial. It is common for someone experiencing the abstinence violation act to chalk his or her relapse up to a lack of willpower rather than identifying the actual triggers for relapse. This behavior promotes denial in all areas of the user’s life, making it harder for him or her to see the reality behind his or her continued use.

The abstinence violation effect will always work against a person’s recovery as long as it is occurring. The best and most effective way to manage it is to work to prevent its happening.

Preventing Relapse in Recovery

There is nothing abnormal about relapse in recovery, which is why it is imperative that everyone recovering from a substance use disorder knows how to prevent relapse.

Some of the best ways to prevent relapse include:

  • Identifying what triggers the desire to use again
  • Establishing boundaries with individuals who have the potential to negatively impact one’s recovery
  • Developing healthy avoidance skills that help recovering addicts and alcoholics get out of situations that are unhealthy for them
  • Determining what to do when feeling the urge to use again (like call a friend, go to a certain place, or meditate)

If you are in recovery and are feeling the desire to use again, do not ignore the feeling. Reach out to someone and talk about what you are going through. Doing so can allow you the chance to save yourself from relapse before it is too late. 

Call JourneyPure in Louisville Right Now

Do not allow anything to prevent you from getting the professional addiction treatment you need. At JourneyPure in Louisville, we can help you get started in your recovery and show you how to prevent relapse.