The Kindling Effect and Addiction

For people with a substance use disorder (SUD), making the decision to get sober is only part of the battle. Remaining in recovery is a daunting task, and many people get sober and relapse multiple times.

The “kindling effect” is one problem that many people that have made multiple attempts to quit drugs or alcohol report dealing with. This page will provide an overview on this phenomenon and some tips on mitigating the kindling effect.

Who is at Risk for Experiencing the Kindling Effect?

man struggling with halcion addictionFor many people, relapses are a part of recovery. Addiction is not a disorder that develops overnight. Naturally, neither is breaking physiological dependency, developing positive coping strategies, building a support network, and making all the other changes needed to achieve long-term sobriety. It takes hard work and, sometimes, several unsuccessful attempts.

While people that have entered treatment before are often familiar and practiced at the skills needed to get back on track, there are also some new challenges to their next attempts at recovery.

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.

What is 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

When someone has developed physiological dependency on a substance and tries to quit or reduce their use, they experience certain symptoms as their brain and body adjusts to functioning without the substance. This is known as withdrawal syndrome.

In some cases, withdrawal without medical support is not only more difficult, but also include dangerous and potentially fatal symptoms like seizures. The timeline and severity of withdrawal depends on several factors, such as:

  • The specific substances of use. Alcohol withdrawal and benzodiazepine withdrawal, for example, is especially dangerous.
  • 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.
  • Whether someone has experienced withdrawal before. People that have gone through withdrawal before often feel symptoms more severely. This may partially be attributed to what people call 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

Comforting someone in group therapy after relapse suffering from kindling effectThe 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. Addiction treatment is an individualized process. A type of treatment that works for one person may be less effective on someone else. When someone relapses, it’s often an indication that the treatment approach should be adjusted. 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.

At home:

  • Continue therapies that were effective in treatment. Once home, it is important to continue growing and progressing in the treatment of co-occurring disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, ADHD) 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.

Recovery First, one of American Addiction Centers’ Florida drug and alcohol detox centers, is ready to help you overcome addiction and find long-term recovery. Call us today at learn more about addiction treatment near you.

The Price of Not Getting Help
When contemplating the costs of addiction treatment for yourself, child, or loved one, consider the costs, or consequences, of “things as they are now.” What would happen if the substance abuse or addiction continued? Contact Recovery First, and we will help you or your loved one get the treatment needed to stop the dangerous, progressive effects of addiction.