How a Stoplight Can Help in Relapse Prevention

December 17, 2019

On the road to recovery, any number of signs and signals direct and block our way. From intersection to intersection, as we make progress or U-turns, we might reflect on the symbolism of the stoplight.

The red, yellow, and green we’ve learned to follow in our cars can be a helpful way to distinguish how we’re feeling along the highway to freedom from addiction.

Use a piece of paper to map out the three circular lights and label each with its corresponding color. Take a moment to consider the following as signs that you are in each area and add any that apply. Brainstorm what more personalized things you can write in as well.


When the light is green, things are going well. This is the space where life is moving forward and, despite ups and downs, recovery is maintained and prioritized.

Some ideas:

  • Engaging in social outings and relationships
  • Attending regular appointments and meetings
  • Using coping skills
  • Expressing feelings
  • Being honest with the treatment team and support network
  • Finding ways to build an identity outside of addiction
  • Maintaining employment (part-time, full-time, freelance, etc.)
  • Taking medications as prescribed
  • Generally hopeful about recovery and the future
  • Acknowledging urges and reasons not to use
  • Asking for help when needed
  • Practicing good self-care, nutrition, and sleep
  • Ability to use resilience to bounce back from challenges
  • Willingness to address problematic behavior and relationship issues
  • Setting and keeping healthy boundaries
  • Feeling supported and capable, even through difficult patches


When you start to fade into the yellow, with several criteria or more areas checked than not, it is usually a sign to pause and revaluate. The advantage of this middle-ground is that it’s the opportunity to notice what is popping up and making it hard to stay on track, and then work with your treatment team and support network to address before things intensify. Generally, this space is contemplation of returning to behaviors or the return of symptoms and thoughts, thus it signals that there is a source of emotional distress to be acknowledged.

This section might include:

  • Increased urges to use substances or alcohol
  • Distancing from friends or family
  • Questioning commitment to recovery, unconvinced of pros versus cons
  • Starting to be lax about attending meetings and appointments
  • Declining quality of self-care, nutrition, and sleep
  • Mentally planning and thinking about when and how to use, how to keep secret
  • Repressing or avoiding emotions and emotional situations
  • Longer periods feeling unmotivated or lacking hope for recovery and future
  • More prominent and lasting mood swings
  • Inconsistent following of treatment plan or commitment to employment
  • Inability or disinterest in addressing relationship concerns
  • Starting to keep secrets and not ask for help often
  • Poor maintenance of boundaries
  • Increased talk or thoughts about alcohol or substances
  • Increased presence of negative self-talk and intrusive thoughts
  • Insisting you are fine out of fear of being a burden or failure
  • Feeling unsupported or alone in your recovery or life
  • Poor coping with big stressors (work, finances, relationships, change, etc.)


The red zone, though wanting to balance being alarmist with healthy concern, is where we see signs that it’s time to take action or seek increased support. Rather than in contemplation and planning stages, this is when you may actively be choosing to move forward into situations that threaten your recovery.

Common stop signs to look for:

  • Saying you’ll use “just this once”
  • Finding yourself in old situations or past unhealthy environments
  • Keeping secrets or acting secretive with the treatment team or support network
  • Avoiding social engagement and increased isolation
  • Extreme emotional reactions or mood states
  • Feeling hopeless or discouraged about the future and recovery
  • Refusal to see the negative impacts of addiction
  • Skipping meetings and missing appointments
  • Not taking medication appropriately or at all
  • No self-care or attention to sleep or nutrition
  • A “lapse” or return to behavior
  • Inability to cope with big stressors
  • Employment issues, quitting or being fired
  • Increased presence of intrusive, obsessive, and negative thoughts

What can be challenging about this headspace and behavior is the high likelihood that you may not want to be stopped at this point. You may rationalize or push away help due to the overwhelming influence and power of the addiction to hijack your brain.

For this reason, this tool is best created and shared with your treatment team and support network.

It can be helpful to have someone like a friend or family member complete this exercise on their own, writing down what they perceive to be the signs you are struggling or need more immediate help. Their perception may not entirely accurate and can be adjusted, or they may bring up possible flags that you would not have noticed yourself.

With these three categories in place, you may consider using the system as your check-in. You can send a text, move a piece of colored paper in a prominent place in the house, or otherwise signal where you are on the spectrum in a way everyone can understand. Likewise, this is a perfect way to start the conversation before moving into creating a more definitive plan of what actions are to be taken when in the red zone.

This is not the place for blame, but a way to assure you are supported through your journey to recovery. Hit the green light and drive toward living out of the grasp of addiction. Call Steps Recovery Centers today to learn more about how to maintain recovery – 385-250-1701.

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