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How Do I Handle Addiction Triggers?

Any thought, feeling, or environmental factor that reminds a person of an addiction can be considered an addiction trigger. These triggers often put a person in recovery through both emotional and mental turmoil, so handling them is important when it comes to maintaining sobriety.

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This can be done by first identifying what exactly the triggers are, which can be people, places, smells, or anything else that sparks a memory of a person’s addiction. Internal feelings, such as anxiety, fear, or frustration, can also be triggers for substance abuse. 

Once a trigger has been pinpointed, the next step is to manage it in a healthy way. Self-awareness and coping abilities are the best ways to handle addiction triggers.

What Are Addiction Triggers?

An addiction trigger is any feeling, thought, situation, or natural surrounding that reminds a person of their addiction and past substance use or causes intense cravings for drugs even when they’re not available.

Cravings can be difficult to deal with. They can lead to the temptation to use again. With planning, addiction triggers can be managed, so they don’t lead to a relapse.

There are two types of addiction triggers: external and internal.

External Triggers

An external trigger is easier to identify. It is an outside factor that is influenced by a surrounding environment. These include people, places, things, times, scents, and any other external circumstances or objects. 

Internal Triggers

An internal trigger is an emotional response that can be manifested from external circumstances, or it can happen naturally without an outside influence. These internal triggers are felt within and can include feelings of anxiousness, fear, depression, or even happiness.

Negatively Coping With External & Internal Triggers

Sometimes, when an addiction trigger is experienced and a relapse does not occur, a person still negatively deals with the feelings that the trigger invokes. This can include coping with the urges in other negative ways, such as making irresponsible choices, lashing out at others, or breaking down mentally. 

Due to the risk of an eventual relapse, unhealthy coping mechanisms should be avoided.

What Causes Addiction Triggers?

Addictive drugs like opioids and cocaine prompt the drug to release large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This burst tells the brain that something important is happening and should be remembered. While people in recovery may not experience these drug-related surges, the damage lingers. The part of the brain responsible for reward and motivation is primed to respond, even after periods of sobriety.

Cues associated with drug use (like the sound of a dealer’s voice, the sight of a place where the person used drugs, or the smell of a lit match) can trigger uncontrollable cravings, even if the drug itself isn’t available. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse puts it: “Like riding a bike, the brain remembers.”

Researchers say these brain changes persist long after drug use stops. It’s not clear how much these alterations can be reversed or, if they can, how long it might take.

Understanding Addiction Triggers

The key to combating addiction triggers is understanding them. Once a trigger is identified, it can then be coped with and not lead to a relapse. 

Examples of External Triggers

External triggers are environmentally based, and internal triggers are emotionally based. Both types of triggers make a person want to relapse. 

External addiction triggers can include the following:

  • Specific places or locations
  • People who are using or you have used with in the past
  • Certain activities that were once carried out under the influence
  • Special occasions, anniversaries, or other specific times
  • Conflicts with people
  • Times of high stress
  • Media or marketing ads that feature addictive substances
  • Certain objects, such as alcohol or pill bottles

Examples of Internal Triggers

External triggers are usually easy to identify. However, internal triggers, which are emotional feelings, can be more subtle and difficult to detect. 

These are examples of internal triggers:

  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Self-loathing, hatred, or low self-esteem
  • Frustration and anger
  • Extreme happiness or elation

Although internal triggers are not as avoidable as external triggers, they can still be detected and managed. Once a trigger is identified, a person can be more prepared with their body’s emotional response. This will hopefully allow for the implementation of coping mechanisms that help the mind adjust, ultimately avoiding a relapse.

How to Identify Triggers

In an addiction treatment program, your team will use therapy, counseling, and educational sessions to help you understand what a trigger looks like and what to do when you encounter one. The knowledge you gain in treatment can help you preserve your sobriety for years to come. T

To identify your personal triggers, use this step-by-step process:

  • Identify. Get comfortable with the idea of examining your physical and mental health. Know what it feels like to be happy, anxious, sad, or upset. When you notice a change, get curious about it.
  • Research. You’ve noticed a change in how you are thinking, feeling, or reacting. What caused it? Have you been taking care of your physical health? Have you encountered something that reminded you of drugs? How about your emotional health?
  • Document. Determine what caused the shift, and write down the details. Be as specific as you can about what made your cravings appear.

Let’s use some examples to make these concepts a little easier to understand.

Mary has been sober for six months, but today, she noticed that she’s feeling anxious. Part of her brain is craving a drink. When she looks back on the past 48 hours, she realizes that she’s adjusted her sleep schedule and is only getting six hours of sleep per night (not eight, as she is used to). A lack of sleep could be a trigger for her alcohol use disorder.

John has been sober for a year, but he realizes he’s been thinking about cocaine all day. When he thinks back, he remembers he changed his driving route to work, and it took him right past the bar where he had his last hit. He didn’t even notice it at the time, but that memory has triggered his craving.

Know that everyone has individual triggers, and everyone has individual plans to combat them. Your recovery might look very different than the plan someone else creates.

Why It Is So Important to Create Coping Mechanisms for Triggers

Self-awareness is the first and most important step to handling addiction triggers in a healthy way. Once a person realizes that the urges they are feeling are just addictive triggers and they become aware of this, they can begin coping with them. 

A coping mechanism is any strategy used to help manage a difficult situation, or in this case, addiction triggers. Coping mechanisms can ease the urges from the triggers and help navigate a person in recovery to safe and healthy outlets instead of giving into destructive habits and relapsing. 

Coping mechanisms can be either healthy or unhealthy. This chart can help you understand the difference between them:

Healthy Coping MechanismsUnhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Waking up 10 minutes earlier every day to meditate.Putting a meditation app on your phone so it’s there “just in case”
Cooking a week’s worth of lunches on Sunday, so you can eat a good midday meal and avoid hunger triggersEating big fast-food lunches every day and skipping dinner to ensure you don’t gain weight
Enrolling in a kickboxing class so you can work out stress and residual angerYelling at your children and coworkers to let off steam on a bad day
Scheduling regular counseling sessions and taking time off work to attend themDropping into your counselor’s office when you’re having a bad day
Walking once per week with your sponsor around your favorite parkWalking alone in front of parks where you did drugs to test your resolve to stay sober

Common coping methods that can be adopted in a sober and healthy lifestyle include the following:

  • Meditation
  • A healthy diet
  • Regular exercising
  • Talking to other people
  • Physical social activities, like walking with a friend
  • Counseling or therapy
  • Getting the right amount of sleep

Most external addiction triggers can also be subdued through coping mechanisms. If a place is triggering the itch to use again, you can always leave that specific place. If a certain activity is causing addiction triggers, do not engage in that activity. 

Adopting common coping methods and living a healthier lifestyle can also help to mentally process external triggers. Over time, the power of these triggers will usually dissipate, though they may always have some pull over you.

Negative Coping Mechanisms

Sometimes, when an addiction trigger is experienced and a relapse does not occur, a person still negatively deals with the feelings that the trigger invokes. This can include coping with the urges in other negative ways, such as making irresponsible choices, lashing out at others, or breaking down mentally.

Negative coping mechanisms can include the following:

  • Engaging in self-harm
  • Overeating
  • Oversleeping
  • Taking out your anger on others
  • Compulsively shopping

Due to the risk of an eventual relapse, unhealthy coping mechanisms should be avoided.

Creating a Life Built Around New Coping Mechanisms

Successfully completing a rehabilitation program is just the first part of a long-term recovery. In order to not give into the temptation of external and internal triggers, life after treatment should be built around new coping mechanisms. Identifying the trigger you are experiencing, being prepared for that trigger, and coping with it in a positive and healthy way is a solid process to avoid relapse.  

In addition to developing new coping mechanisms and a healthier lifestyle, ongoing support throughout recovery is essential. Being open and honest with friends and family while keeping in touch with peers and counselors from treatment helps form a solid foundation of support. This support and preparedness hopefully makes living a sober and healthy lifestyle that much more attainable.

Frequently Asked Questions

These are the questions we hear most often about how to handle addiction triggers:

How can I learn how to handle triggers with addiction?

Everyone’s response to drug use and addiction is different. Your triggers might look completely different than those of another person. A counselor in an addiction treatment program can help you learn to identify your personal triggers. You can also learn to identify emotional and physical changes that seem to cause an increase in drug cravings.

Don’t triggers just appear when drugs are available?

No. Researchers say that triggers (what they call cues) can spark an overwhelming craving for drugs even when they’re not available.

Will creating a healthy lifestyle keep me from drug triggers?

Not always. A healthy lifestyle filled with exercise, nutritious food, plenty of sleep, and social opportunities can help you avoid some types of triggers. But you may not be able to avoid all strong emotions or potential stressors. The key is to learn how to deal with your triggers when they appear.

Updated May 10, 2024
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