Ben Affleck's Return to Rehab: 5 Facts About Addiction Relapse

Ben Affleck at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards in 2013.
Ben Affleck at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards in 2013. (Image credit: Featureflash Photo Agency/Shutterstock)

Actor Ben Affleck recently announced that he had completed rehab for alcohol addiction for at least the second time — a scenario that is not uncommon among people who experience alcoholism.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday (March 14), Affleck said he had successfully completed a treatment program for alcohol addiction. The condition is "something I've dealt with in the past and will continue to confront," the post said. The actor previously went to rehab for alcoholism in 2001, when he was 29 years old, according to The Hollywood Reporter. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]

Addiction is a chronic illness, and this means that relapsing is not only possible, but likely, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Here are some important things to know about alcoholism and the risk of relapse:

Most people treated for alcoholism experience a relapse.

Relapsing after treatment for alcoholism is common. A 2001 review study found that, during the first year after treatment for alcoholism, only about 25 percent of people were able to continuously abstain from alcohol.

However, the idea that patients can fall into only two categories — those who abstain, and those who relapse — may be a narrow view, according to the study authors. The researchers noted that people can still make substantial progress even if they return to drinking. The study also found that, even if those in recovery did not abstain from alcohol completely, most participants significantly cut down their use of alcohol, abstaining from the drug on three out of every four days.

The longer people go without drinking, the better their chances are of staying sober.

People's risk for relapse decreases the longer they remain sober. About 40 percent of those who abstain from alcohol for two consecutive years will relapse, according to Medscape, but people who abstain for five consecutive years are likely to remain sober indefinitely.

Stress and alcohol "cues" can trigger a relapse.

Many factors can trigger a relapse among people who have been treated for alcoholism. These include exposure to alcohol-related cues, such as seeing an advertisement for alcohol, walking by a bar or experiencing social pressure to drink, including simply being around other people who are drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Another important trigger of relapse is stress or other negative emotions, such as anxiety. In fact, recent studies have suggested that the brain areas involved in stress and emotions overlap with the areas responsible for the drug's rewarding effects, according to a 2012 review paper. Researchers suspect that chronic alcohol use may result in changes in the brain that increase a person's response to stress, which may increase the risk for relapse, according to the review.

People's brain activity can predict relapse.

People with alcoholism who relapse after treatment may have different patterns of brain activity than those who remain sober. A 2013 study found that people with alcoholism who showed high levels of activity in a brain area called the prefrontal cortex were eight times more likely to relapse during a three-month period, compared with those who showed normal levels of activity in this area.

It's unclear whether this heightened brain activity may be a cause of a relapse; it's possible that some other factor may cause both the brain activity and the relapse. But scientists know that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating emotions and suppressing urges. It's possible that chronic drinking may lead to changes in this area that affect people's ability to regulate their cravings and resist relapse, the researchers said.

Relapse doesn't mean "failure."

It's important to recognize that a relapse doesn't mean treatment has failed, according to NIDA. Addiction is a chronic disease, and just as with other chronic diseases, there may be times when people's symptoms reoccur. Rather than viewing this as a failure, people should interpret a relapse to mean that a person's treatment may need to be reinitiated or adjusted, or that another treatment should be tried, NIDA says.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.