Triggers in Recovery and How to Avoid Them

Triggers in Recovery and How to Avoid Them

Triggers are an ever-present part of the addiction recovery process, and they must be understood to avoid them. A trigger is a stimulus that makes a recovering addict crave their drug of choice. Triggers may or may not result in relapse.

There are several methods to avoid crave-inducing triggers. The first step in preventing triggers is learning about them and identifying personal triggers. Avoidance requires careful planning, discipline, and a support network. When recovering addicts encounter inevitable triggers, there are coping mechanisms to reduce the chance of relapse.

What are Triggers?

According to the American Psychological Association, a trigger is a stimulus that causes a reaction. Within addiction recovery, a trigger causes drug-related memories or physical reactions that induce cravings for a substance. There are internal and external triggers that commonly work together to cause cravings.

External triggers

External triggers are environmental situations, locations, or phenomena that make a recovering addict want to use their drug of choice. They are different for everyone because people have unique memories of their substance abuse.

Common external triggers include specific drug use locations, smells and sounds connected to drug use, and situations that cause negative emotional responses. Increases in stress from financial problems, uncomfortable family situations, and boring activities are all considered external triggers.

Social gatherings and celebrations, like holiday parties, can also trigger cravings because of past drug use in similar situations. Interacting with friends who are still using is also a powerful external trigger.

Internal triggers

Internal triggers are thoughts and emotions that cause cravings in a recovering addict. Emotional extremes, from euphoria to depression, are triggers for cravings and relapse. Trying to avoid feelings or wanting to feel normal are common internal triggers. Even overconfidence in sobriety may trigger cravings and relapse.

External and internal triggers often work in conjunction to elicit cravings in recovering addicts. External situations can trigger emotions that lead to drug use. For this reason, it is critical to avoid external triggers and learn how to cope with internal triggers that are challenging to prevent.

Identify Personal Triggers

Identify Personal TriggersSince an individual’s triggers are unique, people need to engage in self-awareness practices and write down triggers as they encounter them. This could include an individual therapy session where a therapist works with a recovering addict to recount past triggers.

Other ways to practice self-awareness and identify personal triggers include mindfulness meditation and daily reminders. Mindfulness meditation trains the mind to break free of negative thought patterns to move past them or analyze them.

Meditation creates a habit of identifying cravings as they occur. This enables a recovering addict to recognize the external or internal triggers that caused the craving. Daily reminders help form a meditation habit or serve as an impetus to break out of a destructive thought pattern.

Avoid External Triggers

Recovering addicts with an understanding of their personal triggers can create plans to avoid external triggers as much as possible. Creating a detailed schedule allows recovering addicts to plan to avoid external triggers and builds a good time management habit, which reduces stress. Plus, it is an opportunity to set aside time for healthy behaviors like meditation and exercise.

Boredom is another common trigger for drug use urges. When external circumstances do not require active engagement, recovering addicts will likely feel bored. Many drugs change an addict’s brain chemistry in ways that make everyday activities boring. One way to avoid becoming bored is physical exercise.

Moderate physical exercise is a valuable part of a recovery program for recovering addicts. Exercise reduces boredom and activates reward pathways normally dormant in a recovering addict’s brain.

When Triggers Can’t Be Avoided

Sometimes triggers are unavoidable. For instance, Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) symptoms like depression and insomnia are not completely treatable and are triggers for relapse. To have the best chance at avoiding relapse, recovering addicts need to form a holistic treatment plan with urge coping, therapy, and Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) options.

Urge Coping

When urges to use inevitably arise during recovery, it is up to a recovering addict’s coping skills to stay sober. Using the DEADS technique is one method of urge coping. When the person in recovery feels an urge to use, they can Delay, Escape, Accept, Dispute, and Substitute to not relapse.

“Delay” and “Accept” refer to the temporary nature of an urge and compel a recovering addict to accept the urge and let it pass. “Escape” advises the recovering person to leave a situation that is an external trigger. “Dispute” is when they counter the urges with logical thinking about why not to use. Finally, “Substitute” recommends those in recovery replace doing drugs with a healthy activity like exercise or meditation.

Group and Individual Therapy

Group and Individual TherapyTherapy gives recovering addicts a place to cope healthily with triggering emotions. Without a space to talk through difficult emotions and the chance to gain relief from isolation, recovering addicts may engage in unhealthy emotional habits. These habits lead to increased triggers and urges, so they are considered the first stage of relapse.

People in recovery should contact a Right Path Addiction center near them to find counseling services and group therapy sessions that meet their needs. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) therapy is another part of a holistic recovery program to manage normal urges in recovery.

You Are Not Alone in Your Recovery

The recovery process is long and complicated, and no one should have to attempt it by themselves. Triggers will always be present during recovery, and accepting this starts the path toward avoiding them and managing their effects.

Give yourself the tools to recover by contacting Right Path Addiction Centers to discover our holistic recovery options.


Written by Sergey Zhitar, MD Medical Director

Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.

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