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How to Identify Triggers and Avoid Relapse

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Relapse is undesirable, yet very common among those in their first year following completion of addiction treatment. However, relapse can be prevented by knowing how to identify triggers.

What Are Triggers?

A trigger is something that makes you feel like returning to the misuse of alcohol or drugs. Triggers can be mental, emotional, physical, and environmental, and not everyone’s triggers will be the same. As well, the symptoms of a trigger can be physical, psychological, or both.

Some physical symptoms can include a tight stomach and increased heart rate. Psychological symptoms include remembering past times using a substance or planning how you will obtain a substance.

Can a Trigger Cause Relapse?

Yes; a trigger can definitely cause relapse. This can happen when a person isn’t aware of their triggers, doesn’t know how to identify them, and doesn’t have a relapse prevention plan in place that includes the awareness and identification of triggers.

Relapse Stages and Symptoms

Before you can avoid relapse, it’s vital to understand how it happens. Typically, a relapse will occur slowly and in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical.

Emotional Relapse

During this initial phase, you may not be thinking about using a substance at all. However, you may be experiencing certain emotional warning signs that can lead to subsequent stages of relapse. Some of these signs can include, but not be limited to:

  • Mood swings
  • Bottling up emotions
  • Defensiveness
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Poor sleep and eating habits
  • Attending meetings but not sharing, or not going to meetings

If you do not recognize that you’re experiencing emotional relapse or are in denial that you are, this could lead to the next stage of mental relapse.

Mental Relapse

Mental relapse is often characterized by the feeling of a mental tug-of-war; one part of the mind is committed to sobriety, while the other part wants to use. Some of the common signs associated with mental relapse can be:

  • Feeling the psychological urge to use a substance
  • Glamorizing past substance use, and/or minimizing the consequences of that use
  • Bargaining by assuming you can continue periodic use, thinking of scenarios where use would be acceptable, or using a different substance
  • Lying
  • Planning to use a substance

Continuing to experience the symptoms without stopping them can lead to physical relapse.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse occurs when a person returns to using a substance, and the onset of this final stage can occur far more quickly than it can with emotional or mental relapse. Sometimes, the occurrence of physical relapse can occur so suddenly that it can seem more like a reflex than a conscious decision.

Now that we’ve listed the stages of relapse, it’s time to review common triggers that you can recognize in order to prevent relapse.

External Triggers

Depressed woman sitting on a chair in dark room at home.

Objects, activities, places, and people that cause a person to think about using or a craving for a substance are defined as external triggers.

Objects, even those used in everyday life, can be triggers. These items can include anything from credit cards and cash to furniture, movies, and empty pill bottles.

Activities can also be triggers. Like objects, they can be everyday activities like going out to eat, listening to a certain genre of music, driving, talking on the phone, or family gatherings. Activities can also include:

  • Before during or after work or sex
  • Celebrations like anniversaries, holidays, or promotions
  • Stressful situations including meeting new people or attending meetings
  • Paying bills
  • Calls from creditors
  • Arguments

Places can include locations where you used to go to use or places where substance use is common like a nightclub. People can include those you used to use with, a dealer, or those who cause you to feel stress like a boss or family member.

Internal Triggers

Internal triggers are those emotions, thoughts, or feelings that one formerly associated with their substance use. These can be negative, positive, or typical.

Negative internal triggers can include anxiety, anger, shame, depression, and loneliness. Positive internal triggers can include feelings of  excitement, confidence, strength, celebration, or sexual arousal. Typical internal triggers can be when you feel insecure, sad, bored, neglected, tired, embarrassed, or relaxed.

How to Deal with Triggers

Dealing with triggers begins with paying close attention to how you feel when around certain external and internal triggers, and then making a list of these. Carry this list with you to keep triggers front-of-mind wherever you go.

The next step is to avoid the external and internal triggers that cause you to think about using. Of course, there will be times when avoiding people, places, things, emotions, and thoughts may not be enough. In this case, it can help to have or think of the following:

  • A list of your reasons for quitting
  • The situation that caused you to think about quitting
  • A list of things you can now enjoy because you quit
  • A sponsor or another trusted person you can call and talk to

You can also ask yourself the following questions to help you recognize and change your behavior:

  • Am I engaging in a risky event, situation, or behavior?
  • Can I avoid feeling this way by not visiting this place, being with these people, or engaging in this activity?
  • If I change my current situation, behavior, or activity, can I change how I’m feeling?
  • Am I trying as hard as I should be to avoid this person/place/thing/emotion/situation?
  • What kinds of healthy behaviors could I be choosing right now instead of thinking about using?
  • Can I avoid feeling this way in the future by altering my behavior?

Understanding the HALT acronym can also be very helpful. Recognize when you are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, and address these by making plans to avoid them. For example, you could plan your meals, do deep breathing, attend a meeting, and ensure you’re getting enough sleep.

Self-care is a significant way to deal with triggers and keep yourself healthier at the same time. Get into an enjoyable exercise routine, take the time to relax, and enjoy doing those things that make you happy.

Volunteering can be a very rewarding way to help others, as it can make you feel grateful and positive about your own life. Being kind to yourself is also a very important part of self-care; talk to yourself in a positive and encouraging way, and reassure yourself that you’re doing the best you can.

Getting the Help You Need

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Everyone recovering from addiction has struggled with triggers or one or more stages of relapse. This is true even for those who have written out a list of triggers and who have strategies in place to avoid them.

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing the symptoms of relapse or feel that your internal and external triggers are causing you to begin to be overwhelmed, and coping seems impossible, it’s time to seek help.

Dedicato offers private and individualized inpatient addiction treatment in a luxury setting. Our 3-to-1 staff ratio and small groups allow for highly focused treatment. To learn more about the features and benefits that may make our Sierra Madre treatment center the right choice for you, visit us online or call 626-921-0113.