The Kindling Effect and Addiction

Even with the best care and attention paid to relapse prevention, however, relapse happens. Though it is not a given characteristic of addiction, it is common. It is when relapse happens repeatedly that the kindling effect becomes a risk, a phenomenon that describes the increasingly intense nature of the withdrawal symptoms associated with getting back on track after relapse that occurs when someone relapses multiple times.

The Kindling Effect

As the name implies, the kindling effect is a term that refers to a slow build of effect that is sometimes seen in the symptoms associated with detox in people who relapse multiple times. Effectively, this means that each successive detox will be characterized by increasingly intense physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that may last longer or be more resistant to treatment. Though it is not well documented and therefore is not well understood in clinical terms, the kindling effect is a phenomenon that has long been in evidence anecdotally and attested to by many people in recovery and their families.

Withdrawal Syndrome

Withdrawal, or the spectrum of experience that occurs when someone who is both physically and psychologically dependent on a substance like alcohol or other drugs, is unique for each individual and, according to the philosophy of the kindling effect, unique each time it occurs to each individual if it happens more than once.

There are a number of factors that can impact the exact symptoms experienced, their intensity, and how long the entire detox process will last. Some of these factors include:

  • Drugs of choice that are used daily to get high
  • Dose of the drugs of choice at the time of cessation of use
  • Co-occurring mental health symptoms or disorders
  • Support (or lack thereof) of medical and psychiatric professionals during the detox process
  • The kindling effect

Dangers of the Kindling Effect

Unfortunately, clients who struggle with relapse may become less and less interested in returning to treatment over time if they feel that the detox process will be more physically or psychologically difficult. Anything that can potentially become an obstacle to treatment is a significant issue; thus, the kindling effect is something that should be addressed early through treatment and taken into consideration when creating a treatment plan for someone who is seeking help for repeat relapse.

Tips to Avoid the Kindling Effect

The only way to effectively avoid experiencing the kindling effect is to focus heavily on the avoidance of relapse both in treatment and after returning home. Here are some tips to help manage that process.

In treatment:

  • Show up. Treatment is more than just attendance at group sessions, personal therapy, and other experiential treatments. Actively taking part and sharing, speaking up and asking questions, and addressing concerns as they arise instead of letting them fester can all work to increase positive coping mechanisms and understanding of addiction that will inform sobriety.
  • Connect with others. Spending time with others in recovery who are also working through underlying and past issues while learning how to stay sober helps to decrease the sense of isolation that often comes with addiction. Additionally, it provides a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of others – what works and what doesn’t – and to gain the accountability that comes with engaging with others who know that you are working hard to stay sober and want to support you in that process.
  • Engage in a range of treatment options. The more treatment options and therapies tried during drug rehab when there is a high level of support and a number of different options to choose from, the better able you will be to connect with therapies that will be most effective on a personal level. Trying new things – even if they feel uncomfortable initially – can improve the odds of identifying treatments that will be effective on a long-term basis.
  • Identify triggers for relapse. Knowing what can increase cravings for drugs and alcohol and the urge to get high can help to bring them out into the open and cut down on the chance of being blindsided. For example, many feel triggered by seeing people with whom they used to drink, going to places where they once bought or used drugs, or experiencing high stress levels. There will also be a number of specific triggers that impact you personally but are not necessarily issues for someone else – for example, watching a certain TV show, hearing certain music, or feeling tired.
  • Create an actionable plan to address potential triggers. Once it is clear what events and situations are more likely to trigger relapse, it is important to create a plan to address those issues. For some triggers, it is as simple as avoiding certain places or people, or limiting engagement in certain unavoidable circumstances. It is helpful to create these plans while in treatment in order to gain from the experience of therapists and substance abuse treatment professionals.
  • Continue therapies that were effective in treatment. Once home, it is important to continue growing and progressing in the treatment of co-occurring disorders and underlying medical treatments. This can mean trying new therapies, connecting with doctors referred by the rehabilitation program, or continuing to take part in therapies that were effective in treatment. It can also mean taking part in alumni groups and other support groups that focus on addiction recovery.
  • Check in with yourself. Taking a moment to check in with yourself from time to time to see how you are feeling can help you to identify any potential triggers to relapse early and address them proactively.
  • Check in with someone else. Have an objective third party, preferably someone who supports your continued recovery and is also in recovery, who can see when you are starting to veer off track and has the courage to tell you.
  • Build a large support network in recovery. The more people who know about your commitment to recovery, the more people you have to call on when you feel weak or tired, and the more people who call on you when they feel weak or tired, the more likely it is that you will stick to your recovery principles.
  • Avoid isolation. Being alone can make the littlest things seem overwhelmingly huge. Being absorbed by one’s own problems, worries, and grievances quickly becomes the sole focus when there is nothing and no one else to focus on. Too often, this is one of the first steps to relapse.

In order to fend against the relapse, the first order of business is to enroll in a professional program.