Relapse Prevention: Know Your Triggers

Listed below are ten common triggers that can threaten your successful recovery. Being aware of the risks before they present themselves is an essential component of maintaining your recovery.

(Important note: Each person’s recovery is a unique experience, with specific personal triggers. While this article addresses common causes of relapse, it is by no way a complete list. As always, if you have any questions or concerns about your recovery, contact a therapist, counselor, or other qualified addiction professional.)

1. Being in social situations where drugs are available

Unless you remain on guard, being around people with whom you used to use can be a particular threat to your recovery. Old friends who still use drugs may use peer pressure, teasing and subtle manipulation to get you to use again. These friends may not be ready to confront their own drug use and will not respond positively to someone who questions their habit or forces them to take a look at their own behavior.

2. Being socially isolated

While it’s risky to stay in touch with old friends who use drugs, it’s equally risky to be socially isolated. When you’re in recovery, you need to closely follow the relapse prevention plan that you created during rehab. This plan likely includes attending 12-Step meetings and therapy sessions to get support from other people in recovery and to have someone they can go to when the urge to use arises.

Without this support system, you can start to feel alone in your struggles, which may make you want to start using again.

3. Being around drugs or using any mood-altering substance

Being around drugs of any kind can trigger a craving to use.  Sights, smells, and sounds associated with a drug can bring back memories of the way drugs made you feel, as well as creating an overwhelming desire to use again. If you haven’t already done so, you need to get rid of all paraphernalia, photos, or any other items related to alcohol or other drugs.

A common pitfall among people in recovery is thinking they can use some drugs, as long as you avoid what used to be your drug of choice. For example, if they were hooked on painkillers, they may believe it’s safe to drink alcohol. The reality is that addiction to one drug easily transfers to another drug. To remain in recovery, you need to remain sober.

4. Struggling with stress

Many people first start using drugs to cope with stress brought on by school, relationships or home life. Although you learned new coping skills in drug rehab, it is common to revert back to old methods when life gets tough.

Before drug rehab, when conflicts arose, drugs or alcohol would allow you to escape the situation. Now, you must find (and practice) new ways of coping, such as taking a walk, calling a friend, journaling or some other form of healthy expression.

Remember: The goal here isn’t to avoid stress, but rather to develop healthy ways to manage stress. No life is ever free from stresses and pressures – but you can free yourself from engaging in self-harming responses to those situations.

5. Overconfidence

Self-confidence and an optimistic outlook are important protective factors against relapse — but over-confidence is one of the most common reasons for relapse. The 12-Step principles remind you that humility and an admission of powerlessness over addiction are essential for lasting recovery. But after staying sober for a period of time, you might be so proud of your accomplishments that you don’t think you need to follow your relapse prevention plan anymore.

Failing to attend your meetings, becoming less vigilant in monitoring your emotions and cravings, and slipping back into unhealthy behavior patterns can be an invitation to relapse.

6. Complacency

A close cousin to over-confidence is complacency. Some people, especially in early recovery, start to take their sobriety for granted. They become complacent, assuming if they’ve been able to maintain their sobriety for a certain amount of time, they no longer need to monitor their mental state, attend meetings or follow their relapse prevention plan with the commitment they started with.

At some point, you may begin to wonder if you can use only occasionally or have “just one drink” without relapsing. You may want to prove to family and friends that you no longer have a problem. This complacent attitude can undo weeks, months, or even years of hard work. Don’t let it undermine your recovery.

7. Mental or physical illness or pain

Addiction frequently goes hand-in-hand with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Something that aggravates an underlying mental illness can also trigger the desire to use drugs or alcohol. Addicts with co-occurring disorders require dual diagnosis treatment that addresses both their substance abuse and psychiatric illness.

After formal treatment ends, they also need to carefully monitor their state of mind through journaling, therapy and other forms of self-reflection.

Physical illness is also problematic, particularly if a doctor prescribes painkillers or other drugs as a form of pain management. If you find yourself in such a situation, it’s important that you discuss your addiction with your physician prior to taking any medications. This is another reason why a diet, exercise and sleep are important – staying healthy is an important part of staying sober.

8. Moments of joy and celebration

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, positive life events and emotions can also trigger relapse.  For example, falling in love, getting a promotion at work, or getting into a good college are all types of successes that often prompt celebration. Unfortunately, many people equate celebrating with drinking or using drugs.

Plan ahead to ensure that you can celebrate or reward yourself in a healthy manner. Don’t let a moment of accomplishment or joy lead to a descent back into addiction.

9. Boredom

Without drugs, many people in recovery don’t know what to do with their free time. A bored addict is an addict who is asking for trouble. Find a hobby, get involved in a sport, take classes, or find some other healthy and productive way to occupy yourself during those “empty hours” that used to be filled with alcohol or other drugs.

10. Self-pity

We all want life to go out way, but even the most fortunate among us won’t always get what we want.  Many recovering addicts fall into the trap of self-pity: feeling impatient that recovery isn’t happening fast enough, wondering why they have to deal with addiction and rehab, and questioning why other people can go out for a drink with friends and they can’t.

If you find yourself struggling with any of the triggers described on this page (or with any other threats to your recovery), do not attempt to “go it alone.” Reach out to trusted friends or family members, talk to your therapists or counselor, meet with your AA sponsor, or contact another member of your support network.

Recovery isn’t always easy – but you are always worth the effort!