Substance Abuse Triggers


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a trigger as “to cause an intense and usually negative emotional reaction in (someone).” For someone struggling with substance abuse, a trigger is something that can cause intense cravings to use again, even if they have maintained sobriety for some time.

Triggers are a normal part of addiction recovery, but if left unchecked they can lead to a relapse. As a recovering addict or alcoholic, identifying what some of your triggers are and preparing to deal with them can help maintain long-term sobriety.

What are Triggers?

For someone in drug addiction recovery, triggers link the brain back to something in addiction that causes the cravings to use. Triggers and cravings are not permanent and will quickly pass when dealt with in a healthy way.

Triggers can be a wide range of things and will vary from person to person as they are linked to personal experiences.  There are two types of triggers, internal and external. Internal triggers are emotions or thoughts, whereas external triggers are something seen or heard.

Internal Triggers

Internal triggers are thoughts and emotions that can cause cravings to use. Internal triggers can be more difficult to manage than external triggers as you cannot physically separate yourself from your thoughts and emotions. Internal triggers are often negative emotions and thoughts, but they can also be positive feelings such as joy or confidence as well.

Typically, the emotions that trigger cravings are something that the person experiences often in their active addiction. The cravings can also be triggered by wanting to escape a certain negative emotion they are feeling. Common internal triggers are:

  • Loneliness
  • Stress
  • Boredom
  • Tiredness
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Grief
  • Inadequacy

External Triggers

External triggers can be people, places, or things. They can be a wide range of things, such as a social situation to something shown in a movie. External triggers often happen in situations you can remove yourself from, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to deal with, nor is it always the case.

For example, if someone in recovery attends a work party where people are drinking, this might trigger them to want to partake and drink again. Seeing other people have fun while drinking can bring about intrusive thoughts such as “Maybe one drink won’t hurt.”

Some common external triggers for those in addiction recovery are:

  • People they drank/used drugs with in active addiction
  • Places they frequented in active addiction (ex: bar)
  • Movie or television show depicting drug use
  • Songs they would listen to in active addiction
  • Items associated with their addiction

It is encouraged that when a person starts their journey of recovery, they plan to avoid situations that could possibly trigger them, and plan for what to do when cravings arise.

Identifying and Coping with Triggers

To identify what things could be triggers, a good place to start is making a list of people, places, and things that were prevalent in active addiction. This does not need to be handled alone. People can have a sponsor, sober support, or therapist help them create a list. Once a list is made, the next thing to do is to decide what boundaries need to be set.

Maintaining relationships with people who are still in the midst of active addiction, or who abuse substances regularly can be triggering and harmful to a person’s recovery. Setting boundaries with these people can help remove the possibility of being triggered or pressured to use drugs or drink again. The person in recovery will also need to set boundaries for themselves, for places they will not go to or events they won’t attend. This could mean places where there will be heavy exposure to drugs and alcohol or places they frequented during active addiction.

Events that could be triggering, such as work parties or holiday parties, should be avoided if possible unless a plan is set in place beforehand. If a person is planning to attend an event where they could be triggered, some ways to help prevent this are:

  • Bringing sober support to the event with you
  • Checking in with sober support or sponsor before, during, and after the event
  • Having an escape plan if things get too overwhelming (ex: driving your own car to the event)
  • Keeping a non-alcoholic drink in hand to avoid being pressured to drink

Personal belongings associated with addiction can also be triggering. Going through belongings and getting rid of things that are associated with an addiction should be done as soon as possible. This can mean throwing away empty liquor bottles used for decoration, a t-shirt always worn when using, and any drug paraphernalia. This also does not have to be done alone as parting with these items can be difficult. Asking sober support, or a trusted friend or family member to assist in the process can be extremely helpful.

To cope with internal triggers, developing a sober support system is extremely valuable. By attending any kind of twelve-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, people will be able to form healthy relationships with others who are in recovery and have more time clean and sober. Being able to talk to someone who has experience dealing with triggers personally is one of the best resources to have.

Attending therapy is also a good way to help with processing internal triggers. By attending therapy sessions once a week, you will be able to sit and talk with someone who can listen and provide valuable insight.

When emotions come up that trigger cravings, some healthy coping skills are:

  • Calling someone and talking it out
  • Meditate
  • Taking a walk or exercising
  • Distracting yourself with a hobby (ex: reading, drawing, sports)
  • Focusing on being present

Learn How to Cope With Triggers in Recovery

At Moving Mountains Recovery, part of our treatment plan focuses on assisting clients in identifying what their triggers are and how to cope with them. Clients will be able to learn healthy coping mechanisms through a variety of therapies that we offer. With our unique adventure therapy program, clients can practice skills they have learned in real-time. To find out more about how we can assist you, please contact us today!

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