10 Common Relapse Triggers (and how to handle them)
Recovery from addiction is not easy and there are many challenges. One challenge is dealing with the multiple physical and emotional cues that arise and create a desire in an individual to pick up a drink or the substances they are trying stay away from. These cues are more commonly known as “triggers,” and they may take completely different forms from person to person.
Some people experience a whirlwind of emotions when seeing old friends and loved ones, which can trigger the desire to have a drink. Other people may become so stressed out by the push to perform at school or work that they are tempted by the feelings produced by stimulants. No matter the cause, triggers are a natural part of recovery. Expecting triggers and planning to cope with them effectively is the best way to strengthen yourself against relapse.
WHAT IS AN ADDICTION TRIGGER?
A trigger is an emotional, environmental or social situation that drags up memories of (or associations with) drug or alcohol use in the past. These memories can stir up strong emotions that lead to the impulse to use a substance again. Triggers do not necessarily lead to relapse, but they do make it harder to resist the sudden cravings that are often produced.
Using drugs or alcohol over the long term builds associations between an individual’s daily routine and their experiences with intoxication. As a result, certain cues immediately flip the switch on the association and activate the craving reflex in response to external or internal triggers. Triggers may decrease in frequency the longer someone abstains from substance use, but anyone in early recovery needs to be prepared to handle triggers when they arise – as they most certainly will at some stage.
COMMON RELAPSE TRIGGERS
There are many categories of addiction relapse triggers, they can be emotional, environmental or mental, and often a trigger falls into multiple categories. Below are 10 of the most common triggers in addiction recovery and some suggestions on how to avoid them.
- HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired
The HALT acronym is one that many people in recovery are familiar with. It is important because in early recovery, individuals are often only just starting to ‘feel’ again. It can be easy to confuse some of these new feelings, such as hunger, with a craving. Some of these most basic human needs can also lead to, or intensify, other triggers and cravings if not satisfied. Being in any one of the HALT states reduces a person’s ability to cope with stress and increases impulsivity.
The pitfalls associated with being hungry, angry, lonely or tired can be easily managed with some advance planning and structure. Decide on the best way to plan meals, engage in mindfulness, seek out social support and stick to a regular sleep schedule. Doing so will provide a baseline that helps reduce reactivity to triggers.
- Challenging Emotions
Negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, shame, guilt or anger are often core reasons why people begin abusing substances in the first place. When these emotions surface again during recovery, the brain remembers dealing and coping with them by using drugs or alcohol and prompts cravings.
No one can avoid negative emotions altogether. Experiencing negative emotions is a normal part of life. However, to prevent these emotions from triggering a relapse, people in recovery need to learn coping skills that can be discovered through therapy. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is a modality utilized in the programs at The Lighthouse Bali. Through CBT, individuals learn how to passively recognize negative emotions and build strategies for working through them rationally without allowing the feelings to spiral.
Both chronic and acute stress increase the risk of drug addiction and may be the most common triggers for relapse. Stress is a part of daily life for most people, whether it is being late to work in the morning or a period of tension in a relationship with a loved one. Health problems, increased responsibility and other events can result in stress that triggers drug or alcohol cravings.
The only solution to stress is a combination of preventive self-care methods and employing coping skills whenever you start to feel overwhelmed. The psychologists and peer counsellors at The Lighthouse Bali work with clients to strengthen coping and self-care skills during treatment and give particular focus to them during the relapse prevention planning stage of the program.
- Over-Confidence in Recovery
Recovery is an ongoing journey, yet some people begin to feel that they are cured and no longer need to worry about triggers. It is important to develop a healthy level of self-confidence, but humility is essential too. If someone forgets that addiction is a chronic condition, they may be tempted to have “just one” drink, injection or hit with the expectation that it won’t be an issue. This leads to riskier situations and eventually a full-blown relapse.
Staying away from this slippery slope is the only way to prevent this type of over-confidence which results in relapse. The bottom line is that once someone is in recovery, they need to say ‘No’ to any and all drugs, alcohol or other mind altering substances.
- Physical or Mental Illness
A variety of underlying mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are closely related to addiction and can result in a person experiencing more frequent triggers or more powerful ones. Physical illness and chronic pain also stress the body and can increase the risk of relapse.
When seeing a doctor or mental health specialist, it is important that those in recovery inform their practitioner of their circumstances. It is important to insist on non-addictive prescriptions or alternatives medications wherever possible – the practice of switching from one addiction to another is not uncommon and the possibility of this happening needs to be eradicated.
- Social Isolation
For many people, engaging socially and forming a support system in recovery can feel exhausting. Some people will try to avoid it altogether, which can lead to prolonged isolation and mounting loneliness. Without other people around, it can become easier to talk yourself into drug or alcohol use and rationalize it.
Struggling with social anxiety is common for people in recovery, so having a sponsor (if following a 12 step program), a close family member or trusted friend to turn to is a good start in avoiding isolation and its associated triggers.
- Romantic Relationships
Anyone who has been through a breakup understands the emotional strength that is required to move on with life afterward. On top of the upheaval associated with recovery, romantic relationships can cause overwhelming waves of emotion that make a person feel lost and out of control – two of the most powerful addiction relapse triggers.
This does not mean that someone in recovery needs to remain single forever, but actively choosing to avoid romantic relationships for at least the first year of recovery is generally recommended. It’s important to find love with yourself and to become comfortable in your new ‘sober life’ before bringing someone else into the equation. During the course of the first year of sobriety, most people find that what they thought they wanted in a life partner changes dramatically.
- New Jobs and Promotions
Relapse triggers are not only associated with negative events, they can also attach to positive happenings. Getting a new job or earning a promotion can trigger a relapse in a number of ways. Initially, an individual might be tempted to use again “just this once” as a means of celebrating. Planning sober festivities and inviting other sober friends to join you is a good way to stay on track and engage with the sober community.
Stress is also associated with taking on new or greater responsibilities. Feeling pressure to learn new skills and perform well in a new role can also lead to anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. Talking to a counselor, family member, supportive friend or 12-step sponsor as soon as pressure starts to build is essential.
- Nostalgia for Substance Use
Addiction happens because the use of drugs or alcohol makes a person feel better in some way. Although someone in recovery knows that their addiction was harming them and those around them, it is not unusual for individuals to view their past substance abuse through rose-coloured glasses.
Reminiscing about or dwelling on memories of past substance use is often a one-way street to relapse and must be avoided at all costs. Often, the person tends to forget the horrors of their abuse and the negative consequences and focus on the times that “weren’t that bad.” Making use of a support network is the best way to deal with memories that keep repeating themselves. Talking to a counselor, supportive friend or sponsor will help to remind individuals about why they chose recovery.
- Places and Situations Where Drugs Are Available
It’s not always easy to avoid being around substances of abuse. Alcohol is particularly difficult because so many people view drinking as normal, and it can crop up in unexpected places such as office parties or social gatherings. It’s important to make a list of people, places and things that are significant triggers for you so you can avoid putting yourself in a situation that may support relapse.
Re-Framing the mindset
The ONLY way to stay clean and sober is by creating a clean and sober life that is more enjoyable than the life you are leaving behind. This means reframing your mindset around certain things. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that life without substances is a life without fun but that’s not the case – UNLESS you perceive it to be the case. Here are three key ways to reframe your mind so you can stop surviving recovery and start living recovery.
- Redefine “Fun”
For many people, drug and alcohol use began as a way to alleviate boredom or make certain activities feel more fun. Those in recovery often have a hard time finding new ways to have fun, and it may cause them to glamorize or ruminate on their past substance abuse. Recovery is hard work and drug use feels easy, and this can make people feel like their efforts haven’t been worth it.
Remind yourself of the negative outcomes of your drinking and using. Make a list of things you have always wanted to do or try, and things you gave up doing, due to drinking or using. Start engaging in these activities and celebrate that you are doing so.
Most addicts and alcoholics stop working out or engaging in physical fitness while actively drinking and using. Physical exercise releases endorphins (happy hormones) in the body and is a great way of naturally boosting your positivity levels. Joining a sports team is also a great way to meet new people with like-minded interests.
Behavioural Therapy can also help people overcome the cognitive challenge of acknowledging the difficulty of recovery but realizing that sustaining an addiction is much harder.
- Learn from Setbacks
Everyone faces setbacks in recovery. It is important to remember that these are not failures and should not be labelled as such. Obstacles in recovery are often caused by insufficient coping skills or an inability to plan effectively. These issues can be fixed, and individuals should learn to challenge their outlook by giving equal attention to past successes.
Global statements like “This action proves I am a failure” are harmful and can cause negative feelings that trigger a relapse. Try reframing these thoughts into, “I tried something that didn’t serve me well, I don’t need to repeat that action, instead I will learn from it and grow.” Leaving behind the all-or-nothing approach helps to create a more well-rounded view of recovery and limits reactionary emotions.
- Become Comfortable with Discomfort
Addiction often develops because people use drugs or alcohol to feel better or more comfortable with their current situation. Whether there is a new and stressful event on the horizon or a distressing emotional state, drinking and substance abuse often turns off feelings of discomfort. In recovery, people no longer have that option and often struggle to accept and process negative feelings.
Those in recovery need to learn that feeling uncomfortable is not a state that needs remediation, it’s a normal part of a normal life. Coping methods learned in therapy and through recovery work help people remain grounded while processing these feelings in a more positive way. By being able to successfully process issues, the craving for the escapism of substance abuse is reduced significantly.
WHEN TRIGGERS TAKE THE UPPER HAND
If your triggers are preventing you from getting or staying clean and sober it doesn’t mean that sobriety is not a possibility for you, don’t feel disheartened. Triggers are NORMAL for everyone in recovery, especially in the early days. If you have decided you want to stop you have already accomplished the most difficult step. Reaching out for help is essential for getting through the next stages to sobriety.
At The Lighthouse Bali, our programs also include a medical detox for those who require it. A medical detox is the safest and most comfortable way to detox from drugs and alcohol.
Inpatient Care and Rehab
The Lighthouse Bali’s proven combination of an initial Primary Inpatient Program*1 followed by Outpatient Care and Ongoing Therapy has helped alcoholics and addicts from around the world get their lives back on track. Through individually tailored treatment, professional therapy, and compassionate support, you will be given the tools you need to ensure the best possible chances of a long term recovery.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, we urge you to reach out and contact us in confidence. Our private programs are tailormade to suit individual needs and our doctorate level clinical staff have extensive experience in the field of addiction. If you are not currently in Bali but would like to begin a recovery program immediately, we are able to arrange entry visas for Bali on your behalf.
To talk to one of our team members, contact us on WhatsApp or by Phone. Alternatively, send us an email and we will either answer your questions in writing or call you back, according to your preference – contact us.
We understand how difficult it can be to reach out for help but it’s the first step towards recovery and a happier, healthier way of living.
*1 The duration of Primary Inpatient Programs and Outpatient Care varies according to individual circumstances. Both Inpatient and Outpatient treatment is based around monthly (28 day) increments. As a general guideline we recommend between one to three months Primary Inpatient Programs, followed by one to two months Outpatient Care in Bali, and up to six months of ongoing therapy (by Zoom or Skype from home). The longer you stay in rehab, the better your chances of staying clean and sober when you return home.