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What Is a Mental Health Relapse Prevention Plan and How Do You Make One?

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When I first started treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2018, I thought I’d never be able to actually change. I worried that I’d continue using the self-destructive behaviors and unhealthy coping skills that had caused friends to walk away and even cost me my career in education. It seemed too difficult and unrealistic, and I felt overwhelmed by all of the skills and information I was learning through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

About a year into my journey, I had already made tremendous progress though. In fact, I had managed to stay out of the hospital for over nine months and was stable enough to pick up a part-time job at a local drug and alcohol rehab facility. It was during my time there that I learned about relapse prevention plans and saw firsthand how effective they could be. In fact, I realized relapse prevention plans could help lots of people, not just those in addiction recovery.

What Is a Relapse Prevention Plan, Anyway?

A relapse prevention plan is like a toolkit to help you maintain the level of recovery you’ve already reached. It’s the, “oh shit!” list you can rely on to keep you on track when you feel like your life is going off the rails so you can avoid a “crash and burn” moment later.

Relapse prevention plans often include a list of warning signs and triggers so you can intervene before you end up too far down the rabbit hole. They also usually include some coping strategies and recommendations for what to do if you notice the warning signs you mentioned or feel like you’re on your way toward a relapse. Sometimes, relapse prevention plans also include contact information for people you can reach out to for additional support on difficult days.

Although many people associate relapse prevention plans with addiction recovery, you can make a relapse prevention plan for any condition that impacts your life negatively. In fact, you can even make relapse prevention plans for behaviors or unhealthy coping skills you’re actively trying to avoid.

How to Make a Relapse Prevention Plan

If you perform a quick internet search for a “relapse prevention plan,” you will find lots of free-to-download forms in various layouts. In my opinion, though, many of these forms aren’t thorough or include unnecessary information. So, here’s what I recommend you do to make your own relapse prevention plan.

  1. Identify goals you’re working towards. These may include things like improving your relationships, regulating your emotions, or reducing the use of unhealthy coping skills.
  2. Identify challenges you may face as you work towards your goals. These challenges could be triggers or roadblocks that have gotten in the way of your recovery in the past. Alternatively, you could write out warning signs that you aren’t doing well and may be on the verge of a relapse.
  3. List out several coping skills that work well for you. When selecting skills, try to write a variety of skills and include suggestions for distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and distracting yourself. Also, try to make sure there’s a coping skill listed that makes sense for each challenge or warning sign you identified.
  4. Write down contact information for your support system. These should be two or three people who are not part of your treatment team who can help you when you have a particularly tough day. In addition to these people, also make sure to list contact information for your treatment team (therapist, psychiatrist, etc.) so you have their information handy if needed.
  5. To give yourself a bit more motivation, write down at least three benefits of recovery and at least three consequences of relapsing. These benefits can be as simple or complex as you’d like, as can the consequences. Just make sure they’re significant enough to encourage you to follow your relapse prevention plan and continue your recovery work. 

Recovery from a disorder like BPD isn’t as impossible as people may make you believe. If you commit to doing the work and holding yourself accountable, you’ll be amazed at all you can achieve. A relapse prevention plan is just one tool you can use in your journey towards a life worth living, but I hope it’s one you’ll consider using.

Getty Images photo via Lourdes Balduque

Originally published: July 19, 2022
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