Tag Archives: relapse

Being empathetic might put you at risk of relapsing as a coping mechanism

Empathy might be the original gateway drug, new research suggests.


Image via Pixabay.

Empathy smooths your way through social situations, but it might also smooth the path to drug addictions, a new paper suggests. The research, carried out at the University of Minnesota (UoM), was carried out using mice models but may carry over to humans as well.

Blue empathy

A research group led by  Dr. Jonathan Gewirtz at the UoM set out to analyze the links between empathy, stress, and drug use. The team’s hypothesis was that empathy (the awareness of another’s feelings and emotions), while very useful in social situations, can also expose one to more stress (as revealed by previous research). This stress, the team explains, can push former drug users into relapsing.

The team started by training a group of male mice to mimic drug-seeking behavior. The animals were placed in a two-sided compartment. Mice going to one side would receive a shot of saline (water and salt) solution, while those going to the other side would get a shot of morphine. Repeated over several days, the mice started associating one side with the drug.

Next, the researchers switched things up: over two weeks, mice going into either compartment would receive only saline injections. This was meant to mimic a period of sobriety. With the mice properly sobered, the team was ready to test the role of empathy in relapse. During this step, one of the sober mice witnessed another mouse in a fearful state, the team reports. This sober mouse was then immediately placed in the dual-sided compartment, and the team tracked their fear response and preference for either compartment.

These mice consistently preferred the compartment they associated with morphine. This, the team reports, suggests they were expressing drug-seeking behavior in response to witnessing another mouse going through a traumatic event. Some mice were afterward treated with oxytocin, a hormone which has been linked with social bonding among other effects. The oxytocin heightened the mice’s fear response, the team adds.

All in all, the team concludes that mice (and people too, potentially) are negatively affected by witnessing a stressful or traumatic event. This negative emotional impact is strong enough to push them to seek drugs, even after a period of sobriety. Oxytocin treatment exacerbates this response, suggesting that social bonding (and empathy, by extension) is a driving force in this behavior.

The researchers say these findings are the first to demonstrate the direct link between empathy and drug relapse, and the first to suggest that oxytocin may play a role in enhancing this response.

The findings have been presented at the 57th Annual Meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP), held December 9-13, 2018, in Hollywood, Florida.

What Causes Addicts to Relapse?

Addiction is a topic that is shrouded in confusion and has miffed health professionals for decades. In fact, it’s only over the last few years that we’ve started to recognize just how much of a mental health issue addiction truly is. And as this relationship has become clearer, it’s been interesting to study the role relapses play in the process of overcoming and succumbing to addiction.

What is a Relapse?

In the simplest form, a relapse is the worsening of a condition that had previously improved. In terms of drug or alcohol addiction, it’s a sudden return to a formerly abused substance after a period of abstinence.

While relapses aren’t preferred or encouraged, they’re actually quite normal. It’s common – even expected – that people overcoming an addiction will go through one or more periods of relapse before successfully giving up what they’re addicted to.

“Relapse is even considered a stage in the stages-of-change model, which predicts that people will cycle through a process of avoiding, considering quitting, taking active steps to quit and then relapsing,” writes Elizabeth Hartney, PhD. “Sometimes people will cycle through the stages several times before quitting.”

What Causes Relapses?

From a medical perspective, understanding what causes relapses is helpful in knowing how to prevent or lessen the impact of a setback. If nothing else, it provides a valuable glimpse into the mind of an addict and the challenges that exist with addiction recovery.

Let’s take a look at some of the culprits:


It would be nice if all causes could be easily controlled, but the reality is that certain factors are largely out of the addict’s control. Cravings are one of them.

Cravings, whether physical or psychological in nature, are frequent among recovering addicts. And when you consider that most addicts suffer from underlying mental health problems, these compulsions can come and go for years at a time. Learning to curb cravings as soon as they emerge is key to long-term abstinence.


When a stressful situation arises, a person’s natural inclination is to seek self-soothing mechanisms. For a recovering addict, this often means returning to a comfortable crutch like drugs or alcohol.

Common stress factors that spark relapses include financial issues, relational problems, or health issues. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy manner is key in avoiding frequent relapses.

Lack of Sleep

Did you know that sleep plays a major role in addiction recovery (at least for alcoholics)? According to data shared by Sagebrush Treatment Centers, 60 percent of patients with baseline insomnia experience frequent/recurrent relapses, while just 30 percent of those without insomnia do. In fact, sleep disturbances are higher while abstaining from alcohol, with 25 to 60 percent of patients in early recovery reporting some issues

By dealing with sleep issues, recovering alcoholics may find it easier to avoid relapses and enjoy a more stable process.


People often think they grow out of peer pressure, but it sticks with most people well into adulthood. Whether subtlety or overtly, social pressures can encourage addicts to return to addictive tendencies.

Re-engaging old relationships is one of the biggest challenges. While it may hurt to cut contact with close friends and family, this is often the best strategy for avoiding relapses.


Time is a funny thing. Whether you like it or not, it passes. Sometimes time can be a good thing for addicts, while other times it provides a false sense of security against an addiction.

The longer an addict remains abstinent, the more comfortable they get. This causes them to let their guard down a little. As a result, they’re more likely to try something – like one glass of wine with dinner, or a single cigarette with friends. As time passes, addicts need to keep their guard up and continue making smart choices that prioritize sobriety above all else.

Responding to a Relapse

As previously mentioned, relapses are fairly normal. The key is to limit the impact a relapse has on giving up an addiction. By understanding the triggers of relapse, addicts will be more cognizant of their weaknesses and how they should organize and structure their lives to avoid falling back into old ruts.

Pot twist: Cannabis component helps fight addiction in new study

A new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology has revealed that a non-psychoactive and non-addictive ingredient of the Cannabis sativa plant can help reduce the risk of relapse among cocaine and alcohol addicts. According to lead author Friedbert Weiss, non-psychoactive cannabinoids could have important medical benefits in the fight against substance addiction.

Image via Pixabay/futurefilmworks

Addiction is a powerful, vicious monster that lives inside yourself. The battle is an extremely hard one and it often carries stretches out over years and years — potentially for an entire life. Many abstinent addicts find it even harder to control themselves in drug-related settings or when they experience stress or higher levels of anxiousness. For them, it’s a true struggle to dismiss their impulses when offered an addictive drug like alcohol or cocaine.

Researchers wanted to study the effect of Cannabidiol (CBD) on drug relapse in a rat model. CBD is a non-psychoactive compound of the plant Cannabis sativa (I suppose you already know that’s weed). CBD has been considered as a treatment for neurological and psychiatric disorders, and more recently also as a treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

“The efficacy of the cannabinoid [CBD] to reduce reinstatement in rats with both alcohol and cocaine – and, as previously reported, heroin – histories predicts therapeutic potential for addiction treatment across several classes of abused drugs,” says Weiss.

Scientists applied a gel containing CBD once per day for a week to the skin of lab rats. The rodents had a history of deliberate daily alcohol or cocaine self-administration, leading to addiction-like behavior.

Next, they performed a number of tests to observe the rats’ reaction to stressful and anxiety-provoking situations, as well as behavior tests that measured impulsivity — a psychological trait associated with drug addiction. The research team reported that CBD reduced relapse provoked by stress and drug cues. CBD also reduced anxiety and impulsivity in the rats.

The authors wrote: “CBD attenuated context-induced and stress-induced drug seeking without tolerance, sedative effects, or interference with normal motivated behavior. Following treatment termination, reinstatement remained attenuated up to ≈5 months although plasma and brain CBD levels remained detectable only for 3 days. CBD also reduced experimental anxiety and prevented the development of high impulsivity in rats with an alcohol dependence history.”

Authors hope that insight into the mechanisms by which CBD exerts these effects will be investigated in future research. They believe that the findings are proof of CBD’s potential in relapse prevention, CBD’s major benefits being its actions across several vulnerability states, and long-lasting effects with only brief treatment.

“Drug addicts enter relapse vulnerability states for multiple reasons. Therefore, effects such as these observed with CBD that concurrently ameliorate several of these are likely to be more effective in preventing relapse than treatments targeting only a single state,” Weiss concludes.