Trigger Warning: 10 Addictive Triggers That Cause Relapse

Between 40 and 60 percent of individuals in recovery will suffer an addiction relapse at some point, largely due to addictive triggers. These triggers can cause physical symptoms—such as a feeling of anxiety that tightens your stomach—and psychological symptoms—such as reminiscing about what it was like when you were using, craving substances, and even planning how you might obtain substances. Learning how to identify, avoid, and cope with these addiction triggers is essential for relapse prevention.

What is an addiction relapse trigger?

Addiction relapse triggers are emotional, social, and environmental cues that can bring on drug or alcohol cravings. These cues can’t force anyone to relapse, but they do make you more vulnerable to it. Addictive substances create chemical and structural changes in the brain called neuroadaptations. These neuroadaptations are what cause the transition from experimentation with substance use to the chronic, uncontrolled misuse of substances. They also compromise brain function in ways that make you vulnerable to addiction relapse in recovery, especially in the first year after being discharged from treatment.

Addiction takes hold of the brain’s reward system, dominating it so that drug or alcohol use gets prioritized at the expense of your physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. The learned associations between substance use and reward response can cause the brain to produce powerful cravings whenever you encounter stimuli related to substance use. These stimuli can surface in all areas of life, often in unexpected ways, and the triggers themselves can even cause the brain to release the pleasurable brain chemical dopamine in anticipation of substance use.

Understanding addictive triggers is essential for anyone seeking to maintain abstinence in recovery. There are two basic types of triggers: external and internal. External triggers include environmental factors like people, places, and events; and internal triggers are mental, physical or emotional experiences, such as mood swings or illness.

10 Addictive Triggers That Can Cause an Addiction Relapse

1. Stress

One of the biggest contributors to addiction relapse is stress. Not only can the experience of stress be a trigger, being under stress can make you more susceptible to the influence of other addictive triggers.

Stress can be emotional, resulting from death and loss, interpersonal conflict, breakups, or mental health issues; or it can be physical, resulting from stressors such as sleep deprivation, hunger, illness, or pain. A certain amount of stress can be beneficial. Successfully facing a challenge can produce a sense of accomplishment and mastery that feels good and even releases dopamine in the brain. Chronic, prolonged, unpredictable, chaotic, or excessive stress, however, can make it difficult for you to adapt and achieve that feeling of mastery. Instead, the brain begins to crave the quick, artificial dopamine reward you can get from addictive substances.

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2. Being around drugs or alcohol

No matter how long it’s been since you last used, being in the presence of drugs or alcohol is a major addictive trigger. Not only does it make remembering the experience of past substance use inevitable, the temptation of having the substance readily available can bring on overwhelming cravings. In addition, the availability makes addiction relapse much more likely because the amount of time between getting triggered and giving into the impulse to use does not allow enough space for you to reconsider and choose to protect your recovery instead.

3. Being around the people you once drank or used with

Even if there are not any drugs or alcohol around, spending time with old friends you used to get drunk or high with is an easy addictive trigger. Seeing and spending time with these people will bring up old memories and even subconscious associations with substance use that can put you at risk of relapse.

4. Not taking care of yourself

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Neglecting your health can trigger a relapse.

A successful recovery isn’t just about stopping unhealthy habits. It also involves adopting healthy ones. Ideally, your recovery should include good medical care, sleep, and nutrition, and regular exercise. These actions speed up the healing of your body and brain and keep you stronger in your recovery. If you start to neglect your physical health, that strength will decrease, and you can find yourself thinking about quick fix ways to feel better. Sometimes feeling bad can bring you back to how you used to feel while using, and that association can become a trigger. You may not want to return to that time in your life, but being strongly reminded of it can encourage obsessive thoughts about drugs or alcohol.

5. Financial problems

Addiction often causes financial difficulties through debt, lost income, and drained bank accounts. As a result, you face financial challenges as soon as you are discharged from your treatment program. It’s important to be prepared for this, and to seek out any community resources or friends and family that can help you better your situation.

6. Environments you associate with drinking or using

Environments that remind you of substance use are natural addictive triggers. There are the obvious environmental triggers, such as bars, clubs, or parties, but there are less obvious ones as well. Visiting the apartment building where your dealer used to live, shopping at the convenience store where you used to buy snacks when you were high, or even letting your house get so messy that it looks the way it did when you were active in your addiction can be triggering.

7. Loneliness

Being alone too often, or feeling lonely because you aren’t connecting with the people in your life, can trigger the urge to use substances. This is a problem that can crop up often in early recovery. You may have damaged the positive relationships in your life due to your actions before you sought treatment, and you may need to get rid of the destructive relationships that you know will make you likely to relapse. As a result, you may feel a sense of loss and loneliness that needs to be addressed.

8. Romantic relationships

Being in love can inspire you to stay sober and healthy, but it can also be a dangerous addictive trigger. A partner who drinks or uses drugs is an obvious trigger, but so is someone needy who drains your energy and gets in the way of you attending meetings, taking care of yourself, or forming and maintaining relationships with friends and family. A romantic partner might encourage you to have “just one drink,” because they mistakenly assume that because they can easily stop after a single drink, you will be able to as well. The ups and downs of a volatile romantic relationship can create emotional chaos that is a trigger. Even a positive, happy, healthy relationship can be a trigger if you are accustomed to celebrating with substance use.

9. Emotions

When you are in active addiction, your life revolves around drugs or alcohol, and your emotions are artificially influenced by your substance use. In recovery, you begin to feel things you may not have felt in a long time, and much more intensely than you have felt for a long time. This can be overwhelming if you don’t have the internal skills and external resources to help you deal with these strong emotions. Even milder emotions, such as restlessness or boredom, can be addictive triggers.

10. Feeling too confident in your recovery

Although it is important to acknowledge your accomplishments and to feel proud of your recovery progress, you should try to avoid getting complacent or feeling overconfident. Believing that you have completely conquered your addiction may lead you to neglect important relapse prevention activities, such as attending peer support groups. Feeling overconfident about the strength of your recovery may also lead you to believe that you can handle drinking or using without it becoming a problem. You may start to forget that addiction is a chronic disease like asthma or diabetes, and instead fool yourself into thinking of it as a bout of the flu that has passed.

Leading Tips for Relapse Prevention

Step 1: Identify Your Triggers

Relapse prevention requires understanding what addiction triggers are, and identifying your own through intensive self-examination. It is usually best to do this kind of work with the help of counselors and/or peers in addiction support groups. For one thing, spending lots of time thinking about past substance use and what situations tend to stimulate your urge to use substances can itself be triggering. Counseling sessions and group meetings are a safe place to explore these issues. Counselors and peers can also give you outside perspectives on your experience and behavior, helping you identify problem areas that you can’t see for yourself.

Step 2: Avoid Triggers or Triggering Situations

As you begin to figure out what your addiction triggers are, you also have to learn how to stay away from the triggers you can avoid, and how to cope with those you can’t. If you know a person, place, or situation is going to be bad for you; do whatever you can to keep it out of your life. Don’t go to a champagne brunch, no matter who invited you. Delete destructive friends from your contact lists and unfriend them on social media. And when avoiding triggers isn’t an option, prepare yourself to deal with them.

Step 3: Come Up with An Action Plan

When it comes to certain triggers, you may want to come up with an action plan. In the case of financial problems, you might choose to enroll in vocational training, or take a class in how to write an effective resume. You may work one job to pay the bills while taking steps to get a better job down the line. You might make extra money by having a garage sale or selling baked goods at a local festival. And don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. You may know someone with valuable insights, or who can point you towards a company that is hiring. In the meantime, because there are no overnight cures for money woes, make sure to keep going to meetings and counseling to control any anxiety you may feel.

Step 4: Learn to Cope with Triggers You Can’t Avoid

Your ability to cope with triggers and stressors is greatly strengthened through treatment, counseling, and support groups. Good self-care and healthy habits also strengthen your ability to cope. Don’t let yourself neglect any of the actions or activities that maintain your physical, mental, or emotional health. It can also be good to make a list of healthy activities to use as coping mechanisms.

Calling your sponsor or a good friend can help you effectively deal with an addictive trigger, and so can distracting yourself. Watch a movie, listen to music, or take a bubble bath, and by the time you’re done, the feelings caused by the trigger will probably have passed. Simply taking time to breathe and wait for a few minutes can sometimes be enough to dispel the feelings. You can also try to satisfy cravings by giving yourself a rush of dopamine through healthy activities such as vigorous exercise, or by doing something new and exciting.

What should you do when you suffer addiction relapse?

Drinking or using again after weeks, months, or years of sobriety does not make you a failure, nor does it mean that your recovery is over. Using once, a few times, or more, is not a reason to give up. There is an old Chinese proverb that says:

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.

It is never too late to change.

Take responsibility for your actions and openly admit what happened to counselors, peers, and loved ones. Secrecy will only increase your shame and get in the way of healing. Then start examining the relapse to figure out what went wrong, and what you can do to keep it from happening again. Remember, you aren’t starting from scratch, even if you have to return to rehab. All of the knowledge and skills you acquired in treatment are still a part of you, and you can benefit from them as you continue to learn and grow in your recovery.

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