In This Article
What is a Trigger?
An addiction trigger refers to any event that causes a person in recovery to want to use. These events can be internal, like feelings or thoughts, or external.
Triggers can be powerful because they are linked to intense emotional needs. They often arise when a person feels a need for acceptance, security, or control.
Learning to identify, manage, and avoid triggers is an important part of staying sober.
Common Addiction Triggers
Addiction triggers can be internal or external.
Internal triggers include:
Negative emotions are a common trigger for relapse. People who feel them may seek to return to their habits as a way to escape their feelings.
Common negative emotions that can be triggers include:
- Feeling judged, attacked, disregarded, or ignored
Evidence shows that a high percentage of relapses are a result of failure to cope with frustration.2
Random thoughts can sometimes lead to ideas that can trigger a relapse. This is because your thoughts can spark other thoughts associated with them.
For example, someone can start off thinking about how hot it is outside and end up thinking about having a cold beer on a hot day. Someone who eats a satisfying meal may find themselves wishing for a cigarette.
It’s important to recognize when your thoughts are leading in a direction that could make sobriety more difficult.
Painful memories can be another trigger. Common examples include childhood abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Memories are often involuntary, being sparked by sights, sounds, or smells.
Not all memories are painful — memories of using a substance and the resulting feelings can be quite pleasant.
Memories can also give rise to intrusive thoughts and emotions, which can be triggers themselves.
External triggers are anything from the outside world.
- Social situations: Being around others who consume a substance can trigger cravings. These range from sporting events and parties to friends who commonly use substances.
- Smells, sounds, tastes, and sights: Movies, TV shows, and songs can have substance use as a topic or be mentally associated with memories of past drug use. Tastes and smells are also powerful triggers for memories that can lead to drug use.
- Dysfunctional living conditions: Abusive home environments, poverty, and marriage issues can trigger some people to use substances.
How Do I Handle Addiction Triggers? (6 Tips)
Here are a few tips to better handle addiction triggers:
- Reach out to family members and friends for support.
- Make a list of all the benefits of remaining sober and the costs of relapse. This can provide the needed motivation to handle triggers productively and successfully.
- Meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing exercises can help control and prevent internal triggers. These techniques can be used to manage frustration, which evidence shows is one of the biggest triggers for relapse.2
- Be part of a 12-step program. When you feel the urge to use, you can contact your sponsor, who will immediately provide counseling and support.
- Abide by the HALT rule. This stands Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Those in early recovery are advised to avoid these states because they increase the likelihood of relapse. Remember to eat regularly, watch your sleep, control your anger, and socialize with others.
- Change your lifestyle. By taking up a productive hobby, you can distract yourself from your triggers. Joining a gym or playing sports can also build feelings of confidence and self-esteem to make you more resistant to relapse. A healthy diet is also helpful.
How to Identify Triggers Before You Relapse
Identifying your triggers so you can know to avoid them is just as important as learning to manage them.
External vs. Internal Triggers
Avoiding external triggers is an easy way to reduce your likelihood of relapse. Some basics include avoiding bars or old neighborhoods associated with past substance use. If a song comes on that triggers memories of using drugs, skip to the next one.
Some things may be more difficult, such as disassociating from friends you used to use substances with.
Identify what internal triggers — emotions, thoughts, or memories — are liable to trigger cravings. When you experience them, recognize them for what they are and then allow them to pass. Various forms of meditation and mindfulness can be useful for this.
Benefits of Creating a Relapse Prevention Plan
Many people in recovery benefit from relapse prevention plans. They outline their triggers, treatment goals, and courses of action.
Benefits of creating a relapse prevention plan include:
- Self-confidence: By putting together a plan, overcoming your addiction will become more manageable. This will boost your confidence, making you less likely to relapse.
- Knowledge: You’ll learn what your triggers are and how to avoid and manage them.
- Motivation: Writing out goals and outlining healthy coping mechanisms makes you think more deeply about recovery. This means you’ll be more likely to follow through on staying clean.
Addiction Treatment Options
Therapy can help you identify triggers and learn healthy coping skills. Some options include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aims to address the mental health disorders which can accompany addiction. It is effective at treating depression, anxiety, as well as marital problems.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy builds on the ideas behind CBT, emphasizing paying attention to our thoughts and feelings. It uses mindfulness and other techniques to help people reevaluate negative thoughts and emotions and reduce stress.
- 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are mutual support groups that support addicts in their recovery journeys.
- Motivational enhancement therapy helps people strengthen their motivations to change their behavior. It’s been used successfully to treat alcohol addiction and marijuana dependence.
- Equine therapy uses horses and related activities to help patients gain insight into themselves. It’s a popular treatment for anxiety and PTSD.