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Common Relapse Triggers and How to Overcome Them

Due to the complex nature of addiction, recovery involves overcoming both the physical and the psychological components of chemical dependence. Although treatment provides individuals with a means of regaining their sobriety and health, addiction treatment programs are, unfortunately, not a cure. Alcohol and drug rehabs aim to teach helpful skills and strategies that can sustain patients’ sobriety for the long term. However, many have suggested that the real work begins after treatment as this is when one becomes responsible for maintaining his or her own abstinence and sobriety. Moreover, it’s after treatment that individuals will encounter numerous relapse triggers and face the challenge of resisting them.

Over the course of active addiction, individuals come to associate certain things with their substance abuse. There are a variety of things that can become associated with substance abuse — emotions, situations, even people and places — and they’re commonly called triggers. Unfortunately, these triggers can often cause cravings even after prolonged periods of sobriety, which puts individuals at risk for relapse, or reinstatement of prior addictive behaviors.1 Learning how to deal with, avoid or overcome substance abuse triggers is the central tenet of relapse prevention and is instrumental to achieving long-lasting sobriety. Although triggers vary from person to person, there are a number of triggers that tend to be especially common. Therefore, the following are some of the most common relapse triggers with tips for overcoming them.


Stress and Hardship

The majority of individuals who develop addictions will have begun their alcohol and drug abuse as a means of coping with stress and hardship. In fact, there have even been studies that have confirmed that individuals who experience a lot of stress or who are unable to deal with stress effectively are significantly more vulnerable to developing addictions.2 Whether it’s a bad day at work, financial trouble, being under immense pressure, or experiencing problematic relationships, the stress induced by various incidents can lead someone to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. This makes stress a very common relapse trigger for people in recovery. Therefore, it’s essential for those in recovery to learn alternate means of dealing with stress, such as mindfulness meditation, deep-breathing exercises, exercises that can help liberate or vent feelings of stress, or using creativity as an outlet. There are many ways for individuals to deal with stress and hardship without resorting to self-destructive habits. It’s also a good idea to find ways to eliminate the number of things in one’s life that cause stress so one has less stress to face.

Emotional Triggers

The spectrum of human emotion is expansive and diverse. Additionally, people tend to cycle through emotions relatively quickly, experiencing several different feelings or moods throughout each day as a response to circumstances and thoughts. While many emotions are positive and wouldn’t necessarily be harmful, there are many emotions that substance users come to associate with their alcohol or drug consumption. This often includes such emotions or feelings as frustration, confusion, worry, fear, anger and loneliness among countless others.

When addicts use substance abuse as a coping mechanism for their emotions, they’re actually using alcohol or drugs to avoid experiencing these unpleasant emotions at all. In effect, substance abuse becomes a way to numb oneself emotionally. Therefore, experiencing these emotions in recovery can often trigger strong cravings and urges to use. However, there are a number of ways to effectively process or cope with intense emotions. Talking to close a family member or friend about one’s feelings can be an effective way to liberate unexpressed emotions. Alternately, an individual might consider journaling his or her emotions as a way of venting unpleasant or intense feelings. In order to cope, an emotion must be allowed to run its course, be addressed and eventually dissipate.

People and Places

With triggers being the most long-lasting risk to an individual’s sobriety, it’s important for those in recovery to be able to preemptively avoid as many triggers as possible. The majority of substance users will come to associate certain people, places or even experiences with alcohol and drug consumption while in active addiction. When individuals in recovery are confronted with people and places they associate with their previous substance abuse, the evidence shows 3 that they can begin to experience intense cravings for alcohol and drugs, which puts immense strain on their ability to remain abstinent and sober. The best way to avoid these types of triggers is to simply bypass them, staying away from places where one had previously gone to abuse alcohol or drugs and from the people with whom one previously abused substances. However, it becomes much easier to avoid these triggers as one incorporates the avoidance of certain people and places into his or her day-to-day life.

Guilt and Shame

Similar to other emotional triggers, feelings of guilt and shame 4 are common reasons why individuals turn to substance abuse in the first place. Guilt and shame are associated with a loss of self-respect, self-imposed isolation and loneliness, sadness or aggression, and embarrassment. Additionally, it’s been found that alcoholics and addicts who are made to feel shame or guilt 5 actually become more likely to continue abusing substances and often even increase the amount of alcohol or drugs they are consuming. Feelings of guilt and shame cause low self-worth, causing individuals to feel like they have little reason to even bother trying to quit drinking.

While feelings of guilt and shame can be difficult to overcome, there are a number of strategies one can employ to overcome them. One of the most effective ways to overcome such feelings is by giving back to those in need. Especially around the holidays, donating one’s time by volunteering at a local soup kitchen or giving gifts to a nearby children’s toy drive can provide an individual the kind of warm feelings that come with making a positive difference in others’ lives. Alternately, an individual might try to find some type of resolution or make amends for a prior experience that is a source of guilt and shame.

The road from addiction to lasting sobriety is a long one with many twists and turns. Some days, sobriety will feel like second nature, while on other days one may feel as though he or she is barely hanging on. Every individual is different, with his or her own unique triggers and different strategies to overcome them. At the end of the day, having sustained one’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual recovery is the most important part.







Written by Dane O’Leary

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