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Relapse Triggers: What Are They?

managing-relapse-triggers

Recovery from alcohol or drug addiction is rarely a straight line. Although your recovery will have a clear start, you’re guaranteed to experience many dips and curves in the road. More importantly, recovery doesn’t have a definable end. Given that addiction is a chronic disease with no known cure, your efforts to remain sober will be lifelong. Most people relapse at least once after completing rehab. Some people relapse multiple times before they find the right resources and strategies for staying the course. Learning more about the common triggers for relapse can make your journey a lot easier.

What Are Relapse Triggers?

A relapse trigger is anything that reminds you of your time spent using substances while cuing strong cravings to use. Things like loneliness, stress, depression, and fatigue can all be triggers for relapse. Whenever people in recovery have a hard time:

  • Balancing their emotions
  • Filling their free time
  • Choosing the right relationships, environments, or activities

they’re at risk of relapse. Insufficient life structure and a failure to use the right amount of caution can leave you dealing with internal and external turmoil. This turmoil can make returning to your old habits seem appealing. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to remove or avoid all relapse triggers all of the time. You’re bound to encounter angry and aggressive people, overwhelming challenges, and uncomfortable or stressful situations. The good news is that you can leverage the right coping skills to safely evade relapse in every instance.

Understanding Relapse in Recovery

Relapse in recovery is both common and surprisingly subtle. Very few people suddenly leave their sobriety behind after having worked hard to achieve it. Instead, relapse occurs in several distinct stages. It starts as emotional relapse. Although you might not be thinking about drug or alcohol use during emotional relapse, many areas of your life could be putting you at risk.  During emotional relapse people are often depressed, unmotivated, under-stimulated, and generally unhappy. If they don’t reach out for support, they may begin reminiscing about their pasts in unhealthy ways. This is the start of mental relapse. In mental relapse, it’s common to fantasize about using drugs or alcohol, and to begin making plans to acquire them.  Even while in the throes of an emotional or mental relapse, many people continue attending sober meetings and maintaining most of their everyday activities. Despite this fact, continued exposure to relapse triggers can be a catalyst for physical use. If you’re already stressed, tired, and unhappy, and if you’re already fantasizing about substance use or negotiating with yourself, being around the wrong people at the wrong time can be disastrous. When triggers aren’t known and aren’t avoided or mitigated, they often lead to actual use events.

What Is a Trigger for Relapse?

A trigger is any person, thing, emotion, state, or event that causes you to veer off the path of recovery. Succumbing to triggers can be a conscious or unconscious decision to stop making recovery your top priority. Triggers can cause people to stop attending sober meetings or participating in other forms of structured relapse prevention. Ultimately, triggers gradually make using seem like a good idea. Some triggers are easy to identify. These are often rarely encountered or they are only encountered once. For instance, you might find that having lunch in a specific cafe where alcohol is served makes you badly want a drink. Other triggers can be far more inconspicuous. For example, if you skip breakfast and lunch, mounting hunger could leave your vulnerable to cravings and temptation later on.

Types of Triggers

There are both internal and external triggers to watch out for. Internal triggers relate directly to your own emotions and your own state of well-being. You have a considerable amount of power in controlling and preventing internal triggers. By practicing good self-care, managing and alleviating your internal stress, and engaging in activities that promote mood balance, you can avoid many of the internal triggers that are commonly responsible for physical relapse.  External triggers include people, places, and things that make you think about using and yearn for it. They are often easier to identify than internal triggers. However, external triggers can also be more difficult to avoid. After all, you can’t avoid all encounters with difficult people, busy, fast-moving places, or other things that get you thinking about your past drug or alcohol use. You can, however, identify ways to successfully cope with your external triggers. This is easiest to do when you know exactly what your external triggers are.

Internal Triggers

The most common internal triggers are best summed up by the acronym H.A.L.T. When you’re in recovery, you should do all that you can to avoid becoming too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Spending too much time self-isolating can lead to depression and general unhappiness. Hunger and fatigue can make it difficult to control your emotions. Moreover, if you’re in the habit of letting your anger spiral out of control, you’ll have an equally hard time curbing your cravings. Learning how to deep breathe, meditate, practice mindfulness, and use exercise to promote mood balance are all great to this end. Many of the top internal triggers can be effectively mitigated through diligent, continuous self-care.

External Triggers – People, Places, and Things

External triggers are everywhere. Although you can avoid bars and nightclubs where drinks are served, at some point in time, you’ll likely walk past a cafe where people are sipping wine and cocktails on the patio. Even the smell of secondhand smoke can be a trigger if you formerly smoked cigarettes while using drugs or alcohol. Your external triggers can also include friend and family members you care very much about. During your recovery, it’s important to surround yourself with people who are entirely supportive of your efforts to get well and stay that way. It’s also important to note that even positive celebrations can have a triggering effect. Going to certain birthday parties or weddings can put you at risk of relapse if the people, things, or venues make you think about using. 

Managing Triggers in Recovery

The first and most important step in managing your triggers in recovery is knowing which triggers are most likely to impact you. You may find that specific smells, sounds, or sights trigger a desire to drink or use drugs. You may discover that going to your old home, being around specific family members or friends, or simply watching certain television shows or movies cause temptation and cravings. A person’s triggers can be entirely unique to their personality, experiences, and addiction history. You can work with your counselor, sober sponsor, or other members of your support system to establish a solid plan for managing triggers. Make a list of your known triggers and then determine ways for avoiding or mitigating them. These can include tightening and refining your social circle, changing your living environment, or simply changing the type of entertainment you indulge in. Contrary to popular belief, consciously and purposefully exposing yourself to triggers isn’t a good idea. Although these efforts seem like they might build resilience, they place recovering addicts at unnecessary risk. Some things may lose their power to trigger you over time, only to induce strong cravings many years later.  It’s incredibly important to know when you’re in over your head. When you’re doing all that you can to maintain a balanced and stress-free lifestyle, and are practicing good self-care, triggers can still catch you off-guard. Seeking help can prevent the early stages of a building relapse from turning into a full-blown relapse event  At Recovery Bay Center, we offer a variety of relapse prevention therapies, programs, and tools. Contact us today to find out how we help our clients successfully manage their triggers and prevent relapse over the long term.