Five Relapse Triggers and How to Manage Them

Anyone who’s struggled with addiction has certain “triggers” that make it more likely that they’ll engage in substance-using behavior. These triggers can be understood as points of vulnerability in the war against relapse. Broadly speaking, triggers can be people, situations, emotions, sensations, or even perceptions.

5 Relapse Triggers and How to Manage ThemPeople stuck in an addictive behavior often don’t realize these triggers. It’s only as a person gets some distance from the compulsive cycle of addiction through recovery that they’re able to be objective about their triggers. It’s especially important for addicted people to understand their own unique triggers. Having this awareness enables them to anticipate and manage how the triggered response might affect them and also helps to prevent relapse.

Common Relapse Triggers

To help you better understand and make sense of your own triggers, here are five of the most common relapse triggers and how to manage them:

  1. How you manage stress. When asked, the majority of addicted people seem to feel as though they’re “stressed out” most of the time. It’s true that we live in a fast-paced world and given the speed with which we live, we inevitably encounter stress on a regular basis. So it’s not surprising that stress is the number one reason for addiction relapse.Whether the source of stress is from work, relationships, financial matters, health or a combination of these, it taxes our physical and emotional reserves. To cope with these pressures, many people turn to substances to soothe their anxiety or numb the pain. When life stressors don’t let up, continued use of substances to cope can lead to addiction.But not everyone who experiences stress has addictive behaviors. Perception plays a big part in stress management. The key is learning to focus on what you have the ability to control and what’s beyond your control. Most of the stress people feel overwhelmed by relates to people and circumstances that they have little to no ability to control. For example, you can’ control the fact that your boss has a bad temper. But you can control your response when you’re on the receiving end of that behavior.By understanding the type of stressors that trigger your need to calm your anxiety with substance use, you can focus on the parts that you truly have control over. This gives you real control and at the same time allows you to shed the parts that foster the most helplessness in you. You can also manage your stress with healthy alternatives such as relaxation techniques, exercise, meditation, and deep breathing.
  2. People or places associated with your addictive behavior. An obvious and potent trigger is social contact with people who use substances. These could be old drinking buddies, friends you smoked marijuana with during college, co-workers who go out on the weekends, or even family members who don’t support your recovery. When you’re trying to stay abstinent and prevent relapse, hanging around people who encourage substance use is dangerous and unwise.The best approach is to avoid people and places where you might encounter these types of situations. Sometimes you’ll encounter those people unexpectedly or at a work obligation that requires you to be at a certain event you wouldn’t otherwise choose to participate in. In these situations, think ahead about how you’ll respond and stick to your plan, even at the risk of offending those you’re with. Avoiding a little social embarrassment isn’t worth a relapse.
  3. Challenging emotions. People with addictive behaviors typically have a pattern or using substances to disconnect from their true feelings. Instead of allowing themselves to feel sad, afraid, frustrated, lonely, or angry, they turn to substances to numb the intensity of emotion. Although it may help them cope with the emotional discomfort at the moment, they drift further away from real self-awareness when they don’t allow their true emotions to be felt.When these emotions are triggered through a present-day event or the memory of a past event, it can cause a strong urge to return to substances to cope in the familiar way. But, learning to encounter the feelings without numbing them can actually be liberating. You can learn to let sadness, fear, anger, frustration, and even loneliness be felt. These feelings won’t crush or destroy you and can even be used toward growth. You can journal your emotions, talk them out with a friend, or go on a spiritual retreat to deliberately encounter these feelings. You might need some professional help to find your individual path of emotional growth, but it’s worth pursuing.
  4. Sensual reminders of addictive behavior. A lesser-known but powerful type of trigger can come from sensual reminders of your addictive behavior. These might include the smell of a cigarette or marijuana smoke, the sight of people laughing and drinking in a bar, or the smell of alcohol. These triggers can occur in live situations or simply through exposure to images you see in the media.While it’s wise to avoid as many live situations as possible that might trigger these sensual reminders, you can’t completely avoid them. Don’t be surprised by this trigger, and plan your response ahead of time. Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving the situation or turning off the television. At other times it may be more challenging.  But have a plan in place and a response that will help protect you from relapse.
  5. Happy times that promote overconfidence. You wouldn’t think that happy times might be a trigger for relapse, but it’s true. Sometimes special events such as birthday parties or holiday celebrations can cause you to let your guard down. You can become overconfident and think you can handle that one drink or joint. A good way to safeguard against relapse in these situations is to have someone at the event who keeps you accountable to your recovery plan. You can still have a good time and not engage in old habits.

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