For better or worse, recovery and relapse go in hand in hand. Addiction is a chronic brain disease, and as with other chronic conditions, the risk of relapse is high, especially in early recovery. Unfortunately, it can be particularly dangerous for a newly sober individual. Keeping a recovery journal can be instrumental throughout the recovery process and for relapse prevention.

Hand writing in a journal with a mug on and other papers on the desk.

Why is Journaling in Recovery Important?

The benefits of journaling for addiction treatment and relapse prevention are overwhelming. Mobile, easy to utilize in any environment, and non-restrictive or judgmental, some say that journaling is like “whispering to one’s self and listening at the same time.” Journaling provides the opportunity to self-express and reflect on your own time.

Addiction rehabilitation is not linear in any regard. Each person is subject to experiencing the recovery process in very different and challenging ways. Journaling through the recovery process can help individuals channel their emotions, identify triggers, and self-motivate to navigate healing with positivity, ready to take on whatever challenges may come.

Although not all substance abuse stems from trauma in an individual’s life, studies on drug and alcohol addiction show that the overwhelming majority of individuals who wrestle with a form of substance use disorder also come from a background of high-stress circumstances and traumatic events.

Addiction treatment can help individuals come to terms with those traumas, especially as they engage in behavioral therapies, build a support system, and learn healthy coping skills.

Though not all recovery aids prove helpful to each individual, journaling is one useful tool that enables the vast majority of those in rehabilitation. As a means of self-discovery, journaling allows clients to learn how to recognize their triggers, process negative feelings and difficult emotions, and cope with stress or anxiety.

Journals also act as a physical history of progress, encouraging motivation and the continued push toward recovery and long-term sobriety.

The Stages of Relapse

To understand just how impactful journaling can be for relapse prevention, you must first understand that relapse is not a singular event but rather a process that occurs over weeks or months.

Starting with emotional relapse, individuals begin a downward spiral of negative self-talk, lack of self-care, and avoidance. Emotional relapse often stems from not managing anxiety or anger issues in a healthy way; not utilizing appropriate coping skills when encountering triggers; or trying to “move past” the addiction by ignoring what happened; not attending support groups; and being overconfident in one’s ability to handle the presence or minor use of drugs or alcohol.

If the warning signs of emotional relapse are not acknowledged and addressed, individuals will eventually enter mental relapse. At this stage, cravings begin to infiltrate the mind and body. Soon enough, the individual is glamorizing past drug use, lying, fantasizing or even looking for relapse opportunities. During this stage, future relapse is imminent and turning around is much, much harder.

Physical relapse is the final stage in addiction relapse. This is the point at which an individual physically engages in alcohol or drug use and ends their sobriety streak. Once relapse occurs, it is imperative for an individual to seek professional treatment before their substance abuse once again spirals out of control.

Benefits of Keeping a Recovery Journal After Addiction Treatment

To journal is to write about one’s thoughts and feelings, personal experiences, and daily occurrences. Keeping a journal should not be stressful, strict, or time-consuming. Rather, it should be a positive mental health exercise, providing opportunities for relaxation, reflection, and growth.

Journaling is one of many coping strategies individuals can use throughout recovery to help them organize their thoughts, work on concerns, alleviate stress or anxiety, cope with depression, and so much more.  Individuals who journal learn more about themselves and also learn to better understand others and the world around them.

Journaling can be an integral part of a relapse prevention plan. Even if writing is not your favorite pastime, taking the time to journal for even 10 minutes each night can help:

  • Manage depression symptoms
  • Identify triggers
  • Alleviate anxiety
  • Reduce stress
  • Help build tangible, thought-out goals
  • Reflect on past experiences
  • Remind you of how far you’ve come in recovery
man sitting at a desk, writing in a journal.

(Photo credit: Melinee)

Journaling will Shed Light on Negative or Self-Destructive Thoughts

We all experience bad days and negative emotions, but when self-destructive thoughts and criticisms begin to occur too frequently, it could be the start of relapse. Keeping a journal can highlight these warning signs of emotional relapse and help you take action before it’s too late.

One thing that can be particularly helpful to track your moods and help you notice if you’re having too many negative days is a mood tracker. There are many examples on the internet of how you could incorporate a mood tracker in your recovery journal. Simply write a quick word, draw an emoji, or use a color block on the page you are writing on for the day. You might even have a separate page in your journal as a mood tracker.

Checking back on your moods frequently will help you see if there is a downward pattern occurring and allow you to take steps for relapse prevention.

Writing Can Help You Cope With Anxiety and Stress in Recovery

Incorporating journaling into your relaxation techniques can help you cope with anxiety and stress. Rather than struggling with insomnia, feeling irate because of all your to-do’s, or spiraling into anxiety with all the things cluttering your mind, write it out!

Brain dumps are an effective form of writing for stress relief. This journaling technique can help you release some of the tension and stress of having too many things on your mind.

Oftentimes, a brain dump is timed, though it doesn’t have to be. Give yourself 10 or 15 minutes to just get everything out of your head and onto paper. Some people will use this technique to list out all their to-do items. A visual representation can then help them to sort through and organize priorities.

Others prefer to write anything and everything that comes to mind, whether it flows, makes sense, or not. Simply ramble and let your thoughts just pour out. Don’t worry about it looking pretty or legible. This exercise is a release of built-up pressure from thoughts in your head.

Journaling Can Help You Identify and Deal with Triggers

Reflection is a key component of journaling. It can be hard to process information when you’re in the thick of it. But journaling is a written record of things that happened and how they made you feel.

Throughout the process, whether during or after the fact, we have the opportunity to reflect, to understand what or why things happened. We can evaluate our emotions and feelings, and gain clarity and perspective.

Journaling can be a significant component of your relapse prevention plan as it helps you learn about your strengths and weaknesses, your triggers, and which coping skills work best.

Self-Reflection Will Help Keep Your Recovery in Check

The recovery process doesn’t end when your treatment program finishes. Recovery is ongoing and it takes continuous work to stay sober. Journaling helps you gain confidence in your emotions and your individual needs. It can help you see patterns and become aware of both positive and negative influences in your life.

Journaling will help you become more self-aware and enable you to see how much you’ve grown.

A written account of how far you’ve come in your battle with alcohol dependence or drug addiction can be a powerful motivator and accountability tool for maintaining long-term sobriety.

Woman sitting in a field staring at her smiling reflection in a mirror.

(Photo credit: Caroline Veronez)

Types of Recovery Journals

The wonderful thing about journaling in recovery is that it is flexible. There are many different types of journals you can utilize. A gratitude journal can be a source of positivity when you need a boost; a health journal can be used for tracking fitness goals to what foods are causing poor moods; a reflection journal can be instrumental in building self-awareness and self-confidence.

Choose what works best for you and your lifestyle, and don’t be afraid to change your mind down the road.

You can go the traditional route of paper and pen or go digital. Find an inspiring journal with quotes, stickers, and ribbons; a small notebook you can carry around with you to jot down feelings and happenings throughout your day; or a journal with writing prompts included. You can use an online journaling website, Google docs, or simply the notepad on your laptop. You can even use a combination of journals for different purposes.

Journaling is personal and what works best for one person may not be the best choice for another. A recovery journal is a tool used for relapse prevention and bettering your mental health. Journals provide you insight into your experiences and feelings. They can help you identify challenges and overcome them. In the end, this is about supporting your sober lifestyle so make it work for you!

What Should I Write About?

You can write about anything you want in your journal! It can be helpful to include a date and time, but other than that, there is no right or wrong way!

You can write as little or as much as you want. You can simply track your moods and feelings, write about your day, use journal prompts to help guide your writing, or brain dumps to just get things off your chest and out of your head. Try out different methods of journaling and see what feels right for you. And don’t be afraid to incorporate a variety of styles!

Addiction Recovery Journal Prompts

Sometimes you don’t have enough inspiration for journaling. This is where journal prompts can come in handy.

There are many journals you can purchase online or from bookstores that include prompts to help direct your writing. You can even find specific addiction recovery journals that have guided questions to help individuals through ongoing recovery.

Places like Etsy sell digital download versions of prompted journals so you can pick and choose different ones you like and print them on your home computer as many times as you’d like. You can even search for free recovery journal prompts to find countless ideas and questions that you can incorporate into your own journal.

hands holding a bullet journal with a flower layout.

How Common is Addiction Relapse?

Relapse is common in the addiction recovery process with an average relapse rate of 40-60%. Simply put, 2 out of 3 people relapse within the first year. And for some drugs, such as opioids, relapse rates are as high as 91%.

Nonetheless, according to relapse statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), relapse for substance use disorder is comparable to other chronic illnesses such as hypertension and asthma, which see a relapse rate of 50-70%.

Still, individuals who complete a professional, comprehensive treatment program are less likely to relapse compared to their counterparts.

Such programs utilize a multi-dimensional approach to treatment, incorporating various forms of therapy while simultaneously addressing underlying mental health issues, resulting in deeper and more thorough healing of the drug or alcohol addiction. In addition, these programs offer integral and invaluable resources to help individuals stay sober after treatment ends.

Relapse Risk Factors

There are many reasons why individuals relapse after completing treatment. Often it’s because they think once the treatment program ends, they can get back to everyday life as if nothing ever happened. They don’t take the idea that recovery is a lifelong process to heart and start to slip on maintaining their recovery efforts.

Other risk factors of drug relapse include:

  • Financial stress
  • Lack of social and emotional support
  • Untreated physical or mental health issues
  • Isolation, loneliness, boredom
  • Depression, anxiety, anger
  • Loss and grief
  • Poor coping skills
  • Not reaching out to support people for help
  • Disbelief in one’s ability to control their substance use
  • Lack of motivation for change
  • Belief that substance use can be positive, i.e. to decrease anxiety or increase sociability
  • Flawed lifestyle choices
  • Maintaining contact, or simply keeping contact info for, people who still use or sell drugs
  • Spending time in places where one used drugs or alcohol
  • Living near a bar or liquor store or in a neighborhood with a lot of drug activity
  • Exposure to alcohol or drug use by colleagues, friends, or family

What’s the Best Thing to Do After a Relapse?

Remember that relapse does not mean you’ve failed! Once physical relapse occurs, the most important thing is what you do next. You might be feeling disappointed, scared, or concerned. That’s normal.

The first thing you want to do is reach out to your sponsor, trusted family or friend, or therapist/counselor. You’ll want to spend some time thinking about and reflecting on what led you to use drugs or alcohol again. Talking through what happened with your support person can be helpful.

Learn from your relapse and make changes. Realize that your relapse prevention plan may need to be adjusted. Acknowledge what is or isn’t working in your environment or day-to-day life and make necessary changes. Look for additional healthy habits to prevent future relapses.

Sometimes, it’s most beneficial to go back to treatment. Recovery is a learning process. Going back to treatment doesn’t mean you are a failure. No one learned to ride a bike on their first try!

Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up over your relapse. Remember that it is very common and simply means you need to evaluate and make adjustments! Forgive yourself. You have permission to try again.

page of a journal reading "everyday is a fresh start."

(Photo credit: Bich Tran)

Substance Abuse Treatment at SJRP

Addiction is a chronic relapsing illness. Fortunately, individuals who suffer from drug addiction or alcohol abuse disorders do not have to walk the recovery journey alone. There are thousands of rehabilitation centers across the country that provide individuals and their loved ones the opportunity to overcome substance abuse and start fresh. Addiction is a scary, overwhelming illness, but that does not mean it can’t be beaten.

St. John’s Recovery Place (SJRP) in Crescent City, Florida, utilizes its facilities, care networks, and renowned treatment options to help individuals recover from addiction. Focusing on a holistic healing experience, SJRP uses traditional rehabilitative programs alongside alternative and complementary recovery aids. No one knows better than SJRP how important it is to engage the mind, body, and spirit in the healing journey.

Today, many drug and alcohol rehabs focus only on treating the physical symptoms of addiction to return individuals to society as quickly as possible. But neglecting the emotional and mental health of an individual in addiction recovery can have severe consequences.

Addiction is a complex disease that requires multi-dimensional care to be effective and provide the best opportunity for long-term recovery. As a result, SJRP offers individualized treatment programs integrating care for substance use disorders with therapy for co-occurring mental health issues.

Drugs or alcohol do not have to control your life anymore. If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, call St. John’s Recovery Place today at 1-833-397-3422 to learn more about your treatment options. You won’t regret it. The recovery journey may be challenging, but it is worth it to reclaim your life.