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Recognizing The Triggers: How To Stop A Setback In Its Tracks

Recognizing The Triggers: How To Stop A Setback In Its Tracks
Written by Seth Fletcher on November 28, 2019
Last update: May 15, 2024

Some people truly believe that when you are struggling with addiction, relapse is inevitable.

While the rate of relapse is quite high, giving yourself this belief that it’s something that will inevitably happen can be damaging on your road to recovery and sobriety. It can feel like you are setting yourself up to relapse because you have convinced yourself that it’s going to happen no matter what you do.

The key to avoiding relapse is to understand what could potentially lead you back to your drug of choice. These events, situations or feelings that make you crave your addiction after becoming sober are called triggers.

While you can never completely isolate yourself from triggers (because they frequently change and depend on your current situation), recognizing and dealing with them in healthy ways can prevent a relapse and put an end to your struggle with alcohol or drug addiction.

Understanding Addiction: Triggers and Cravings

Understanding your addiction, as well as identifying, acknowledging and then dealing with the things that could cause a setback is the best way to ensure a clean and sober lifestyle. But how do you know what your triggers are?

Triggers can be anything, including:

  • Social situations that promote or encourage drug use
  • People who used to enable your use or supply you with drugs or alcohol
  • Emotional problems that you often avoided with the use of drugs or alcohol
  • Traumatic situations
  • Slipping back into your old habits and behaving the way you used to when you frequently used drugs or alcohol
  • Revisiting places where you used to get high or drunk
  • Physical objects can also cause setbacks (for example, normal everyday spoons can spark memories of drug use in former heroin users)

Your triggers can be people, places, activities or even objects that give you cravings for your drug of choice or put you back into the emotional setting that enabled you to use in the first place.

A trigger can be something you intentionally do, or an environment you put yourself into on purpose (for instance, being around people who still use drugs while you’re trying to stop), but it can be unintentional as well.

For a recovering addict, there are plenty of things in everyday life that may trigger a craving or urge to use. For example, a study by NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) showed that cocaine-related images (often portrayed in media) can subconsciously prompt the emotional centre of the brain in a former user, which can set off a rapid activation of the circuits in our bodies that were commonly associated with substance cravings. [1]

When triggers are so hard to pinpoint, is there any specific way of figuring out what your personal risk factors are?

Acknowledging Your Triggers

Triggers can be different for everyone.

They can be personal and they can change as your life changes. It’s extremely important to understand and acknowledge the things that you personally find triggering, and then to take the necessary steps to avoid putting yourself near those triggering situations or events.

The most common triggers can be described with the acronym HALT, which stands for HUNGRY, ANGRY, LONELY, TIRED. These emotions are major triggers for many people.

Acknowledging your triggers can be a very difficult step in the recovery process, because it can often involve drastically changing parts of your life. For example, if you have multiple friends who are still frequently using their drugs of choice, it’s going to be extremely triggering for you to be around those people. Therefore, the first step towards enabling your own recovery would be to stop seeing those people.

Cutting ties with friends and even family members, physically avoiding places you used to visit all the time, and being hyper-aware of the things in your life that could promote or enable your drug dependence, can be extremely emotional and exhausting.

Addiction Prevention: Avoiding Potentially Triggering Situations

However emotional and difficult it is to remove those triggering events, people and places from your life, it’s a crucial part of recovery. How can you expect yourself to stay clean and sober when your life is still full of things that remind you and tempt you back into a life of drugs and alcohol abuse?

One of the biggest impacts that residential treatment facilities have on addicts is that they are completely removed from the life they’ve built themselves that actively enables their addiction. Pulling yourself out of your lifestyle and creating all-new, healthier habits for yourself is the best way to ensure you stay sober.

There are several “high risk” situations that you could find yourself in that might lead to relapse. It’s best to be mindful of what puts you at risk of relapse, because it can be something as simple as being paid at work. Much of the time, addicts use their payday money to indulge in their drug of choice.

Some other high-risk situations to be mindful of are:

  • Parties, going out to eat with friends, going dancing at a club where there is going to be drug use
  • Anniversaries or meaningful dates that cause a lot of emotions
  • Hanging out with active drug users or drug addicts who frequently indulge in drug or alcohol abuse (even if they aren’t currently using, their behaviours can enable your addictive traits)
  • Attending recovery group meetings or directly after recovery group meetings - this can be an emotional time which can result in relapse to avoid dealing with complicated, negative emotions brought up in the meeting

Dealing with Internal Thoughts and Emotions that Can Be Triggering

The tricky thing about triggers and risk factors is that they aren’t just external. They oftentimes aren’t things that we can just physically remove from our lives. When internal triggers like this arise, it can be extremely difficult to remind yourself of why you became sober in the first place.

Negative feelings to be aware of that may cause you to relapse can include:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Feeling overwhelmed or inadequate

Even “normal” feelings can feel triggering, such as being bored or excited, feeling the need to celebrate a special occasion or feeling exhausted and just wanting some kind of break or release from everyday stress.

Mental disorders or mental illnesses that have gone undiagnosed or untreated can also put you at risk of using drugs or alcohol to self-soothe.

Dealing with these complex thoughts and emotions can be extremely difficult, which is why a key part of successful recovery often involves both individual and group therapy sessions with trained professionals who can help you sort through what you’re feeling and find healthier coping strategies.

Managing Your Triggers

Once you realize what commonly causes you to want to relapse, you need to work on implementing positive coping skills into your life when those situations arise.

One of the best ways to deal with potential triggers is to come up with a relapse prevention plan.

Ask yourself some of these questions, and be as honest as possible.

What will you do if you feel the need to use again?

How likely are you to give into your cravings?

What are some ways you can ensure you won’t relapse?

Some common relapse prevention plans can include:

  • Calling a friend to come sit with you and talk
  • Calling an addiction helpline
  • Finding an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous support group meeting in your area
  • Scheduling a counseling session
  • Taking up a hobby (distraction) you can participate in to stave off boredom
  • Joining a social group to help avoid isolation and loneliness, which can lead to relapse

Another way to manage your triggers is to be honest with yourself about where you’re at. Some alcoholics are able to walk past a bar and not feel the need to drink - if you find this difficult and tempting, avoid areas where this situation could happen. Don’t test yourself.

Take action, don’t react.

This is one of the best ways to cope with triggers. Feeling hungry? Have a snack. Are you tired? Take a nap. Physically coming up with a solution to the emotion or thought that is triggering can be a great way to prevent a relapse and get rid of triggering thoughts and feelings.

What Happens If You Relapse

While relapse isn’t inevitable, it can happen anywhere, any time, after any number of months or even years of remaining sober. When relapse does happen, especially after a long period of abstinence, it can feel absolutely devastating.

The most important thing to remember if you have relapsed is that this isn’t the end. This doesn’t mean all of your efforts in building a healthy, drug-free lifestyle are meaningless. If you have relapsed, one of the most impactful, beneficial things you can do is immediately seek help.

Check yourself back into a detox center, admit yourself into inpatient rehab or even seek out a 12-step meeting in your area.

Surrounding yourself with people who want nothing but health and happiness for you, and removing yourself from the triggering situation, is the most important first step on your road back to recovery.

Sources used for the article


Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.

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