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Triggers for Those in Addiction Recovery: Know the Signs of Relapse

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Feb 2, 2023 • 7 cited sources

A trigger is an emotional reaction to an event, feeling, or circumstance that brings up a previous negative experience. Triggers are common in everyday life and can cause stress and anxiety. 

In addiction recovery, a trigger can cause drug cravings and lead to a relapse. Individual triggers can be different for each person. 

It is important to know what your specific triggers are, so you can learn how to best cope with and/or avoid them to minimize relapse.

What Are Triggers in Addiction?

Triggers can be either internal or external stimuli that often cause an intense emotional reaction. Triggers can prompt a return to drug use to escape or soothe this anxiety, fear, or depression. 

A trigger in addiction recovery is anything that leads to a relapse or a return to drug use. This can be due to heightened emotions or stress, feelings of being overwhelmed or out of control, or related to an environmental factor.

Signs of triggers can include the following:

  • Feelings of nervousness
  • Racing heart rate 
  • Rapid breathing
  • Tightening of the stomach or chest
  • Sweaty palms and elevated body temperature
  • Thoughts of using drugs to escape or remembering how they made you feel good
  • Thinking of fond memories of previous drug use
  • Planning how to get or use drugs
  • Feeling a need to use drugs

Most Common Triggers for Relapse

Some of the most common triggers in addiction recovery include contact with drugs and stress cues that are linked to previous drug use, which can include both external stimuli and intrusive thoughts.[1] Triggers are not going to look exactly the same for each person. They can be as simple as a certain smell or more complicated, such as a reminder of a painful memory. 

Some of the most common triggers in addiction recovery include the following:

  • Stress: Everyone experiences stress, but not everyone manages it in a healthy way. For someone with a substance use disorder, drugs and alcohol were commonly unhealthy forms of managing stress.
    They provided a relief from intense and negative emotions even if it was temporary. Therefore, stress can lead to drug cravings and be a trigger for relapse.
  • Hunger: Any type of cravings, including ones for food, can become a trigger that can lead to relapse. Feelings of physical discomfort, such as hunger, can lead to drug use. Drugs can also suppress appetite, which can be desirable too.
  • Social isolation: Loneliness and too much time alone can contribute to self-doubt and spending too much time in your own head. Healthy and positive human connections are essential for maintaining recovery and remembering your “why.” Feeling alone and isolated can therefore trigger a relapse in an attempt to feel better.
  • Boredom: If you do not have enough to do, you may find your thoughts wandering and thinking about “better” times when you were doing drugs or drinking alcohol. Boredom and too much free time with not enough to do that is fulfilling to you can be a trigger for a relapse.
  • Being overly tired: Not getting enough sleep can make you irritable and bring concentration issues. Fatigue can open the door to low emotions, which can become a trigger. It is hard to think straight when you are tired, which can also lower your decision-making abilities and harm rational thought capabilities.
  • Relationship issues: Relationships often become strained due to addiction. They need to be rebuilt and redefined in recovery. This is not always a smooth road. Bumps along the way can cause extra stress and feelings of inadequacy or despair. Uncertainty in relationships can also be a trigger.
  • Medical issues: Medical conditions can cause pain and discomfort, and drugs can often seem to “take the edge off,” providing a method of unhealthy self-medication. Underlying and untreated medical conditions and chronic pain can be a trigger for relapse.
  • Mental health conditions: Anxiety and depression commonly co-occur with substance use disorders and are often complexly intertwined. Either can be a contributing factor for the other, and both can complicate each other.
    Mental health needs to be supported in addiction recovery, as uncomfortable feelings and emotions can trigger a desire to self-medicate these difficult feelings with drugs or alcohol.
  • Hanging out with people who are not supportive of your recovery: Easy access and exposure to drugs or alcohol can be a huge trigger. It can be hard to resist people who are pushing these substances on you in addiction recovery, and this can result in a return to drug or alcohol use.
    Overconfidence is another issue, which can include thoughts like, “I can do this one time or have one drink and be fine.” Any drug or alcohol use in recovery can lead to relapse and be a trigger for continued use.
  • People, places, or things that remind you of previous drug or alcohol use: Going to your old bar or a place where you used to use drugs can be a massive trigger for returning to previous habits. Anything that reminds you of using can bring back seemingly positive emotions surrounding drug use, causing you to romanticize it and consider returning to drug or alcohol use.
  • Major life transitions: A breakup, divorce, kids leaving the house, job changes, or a change in your living situation can all be triggers that cause stress and anxiety. Even when the change might be good, new can be hard at first and elicit some strong emotions.

How to Avoid or Overcome Relapse Triggers

The better handle you have on what your triggers are and your ability to recognize that you are having an emotional reaction, the better able you will be to manage these triggers successfully.[2] 

It is important to take care of yourself physically and emotionally to best handle triggers. When you are well rested, eating balanced and nutritious meals, engaging in healthy outlets, and maintaining positive social connections and relationships, you are much more able to deal with stress and work through triggers effectively.

Some triggers are best avoided, while others might be unavoidable and need to be dealt with directly. For example, it is important to remove yourself from people and situations that directly remind you of drug use. Hanging out with your old crew that is still using or visiting your favorite bar are triggers that can be avoided, while stress is a part of everyday life that needs to be managed in a healthy way.

Some examples of healthy coping mechanisms include the following:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Practicing creative expression, such as playing music, dancing, painting, or drawing
  • Doing something you love, such as reading or engaging in a favorite hobby
  • Surrounding yourself with positive, supportive people
  • Using the tools you learned in addiction treatment

Finding things that can bring you joy can help you to overcome triggers.[3] It is important to build and sustain healthy habits so you can cope with stressors and potential triggers as they arise.

What to Do if You Feel Triggered

It is important to remember that triggers are temporary, and they will pass. Recognizing your triggers, ideally quickly, is beneficial in helping you to deal with them in a healthy manner. 

You should have a plan in place regarding what to do when you are feeling triggered, as it is impossible to avoid all triggers. You can avoid relapse by working through your feelings when triggered. 

If you are feeling triggered, the following steps can help:

  1. Recognize what is triggering you.
  2. Remind yourself that this is normal, triggers are part of life, and you will get through it without giving into your craving.
  3. When possible, remove yourself from the trigger. Use mindfulness techniques and breathing to calm your system.
  4. Call on your support system. This can be a friend or family member, sponsor, counselor, or therapist. You can also drop into a support group meeting.

Resources to Deal With Relapse Triggers

Addiction treatment programs can teach you skills for building healthy habits, identifying triggers, and helping to prevent relapse by managing triggers successfully. Behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teach you how to recognize your emotional reactions and how your thoughts contribute to your actions. These skills can be carried into addiction recovery. 

Additional methods of managing triggers include breathing and mindfulness techniques. Being intentional and mindful while regulating your breathing are skills that can help you cope with triggers. 

Here are some resources for managing triggers:

  • Breathing and mindfulness techniques: Practice breathing exercises for stress.[4] Enroll in a yoga or meditation class.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA): These peer support, 12-step programs offer meetings at a variety of times and locations to support people in recovery.[5,6]
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: This helpline offers immediate assistance and support around the clock as well as information on local services.[7]

Many addiction treatment programs offer recovery support services, and these can be great resources when you need them. Your counselor, therapist, and medical or mental health providers can also provide you with resources in addiction recovery. 

Accessing help that is available can best prepare you to deal with triggers when they arise. With the right support, you can successfully minimize your relapse risks. If you lapse, get back on track right away. Recovery is a lifelong journey.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Treatment and Recovery. National Institute on Drug Abuse. July 2020. Accessed August 2022.
  2. Five Steps for Managing Your Emotional Triggers. Psychology Today. July 2015. Accessed August 2022.
  3. Tips for Dealing With Triggers in Recovery From Substance Use Disorders. PsychCentral. November 2021. Accessed August 2022.
  4. Breathing Exercises for Stress. NHS. August 2022. Accessed August 2022.
  5. Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. 2022. Accessed August 2022.
  6. Narcotics Anonymous. NA World Services, Inc. 2022. Accessed August 2022.
  7. SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed August 2022.

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