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10 Major Relapse Triggers and How to Deal With Them

The things, people, places, experiences, and feelings that remind us of drinking or using (aka relapse triggers) are often unavoidable. Thinking and even dreaming about alcohol and other drugs is a natural part of recovery.

Thinking and talking about cravings for alcohol and other drugs can make some people crave them more. Many people don’t even want to talk about relapse because they are scared that it may actually cause them to drink or use.

Learning to identify and then navigate through and around these triggers can help avoid a relapse. 

First of all, a person’s relapse triggers are unique to them.  My partner (also in recovery) was helping me make a list of main triggers… his list and mine were already different from the get-go.  What seemed obvious to him wasn’t on my list at all.

For instance, when I was drinking I loved Fireball. So he naturally put cinnamon candy on my list thinking that would trigger me, and for some of our friends, this is true.  But I could care less.  I can eat red-hots and pop Big Red gum all day and not think once about having a shot of Fireball.  But that’s just me.   

However… tell me we’re having lasagna or filet mignon  I immediately want to look for the decanter, corkscrew, and a couple of bottles of nice red wine. Bad idea!  Me sticking to one or two glasses of wine MIGHT happen.

Big possibility it won’t.

Do I want to risk a possible black-out, wandering off, embarrassing myself? Friends? Family? Maybe going to jail?

Or worse — waking up not knowing where the hell I am or what I did? Yikes. 

Does this mean I’m going to avoid pasta, nice steaks, or even cooking for the rest of my life?  Uh… hell no. I’m half-Italian, I live in Texas with some of the best steaks around, and I’ve worked in restaurants most of my adult life (huge foodie).

Being an alcoholic isn’t going to keep me from living my best life.  My best life simply doesn’t include drugs or alcohol anymore. 

There are multiple ways to deal with triggers.  Sometimes it’s easiest to simply avoid them if I can. If I can’t avoid them, interrupting my old “normal” with a healthier routine might suffice.

If I know I’m going to be faced with something potentially trigger-y, talking about it beforehand and mentally walking through the scenario can help. Having phone numbers of people who can and will hold me accountable can help.

We aren’t alone in this recovery process! 

I’ve learned to cope and even thrive. Some days that’s more challenging than others, and I’ve had my share of slip-ups, but every day I get through sober is a triumph.   

So… Triggers… Identifying and Navigating.  If I tried to list everything that comes to mind, we could be here all day.

So let’s focus on 10 major relapse triggers that affect many on a day-to-day basis and ways to get through or around them.  

1. Places 

Okay, this relapse trigger could really be anywhere when it truly comes down to it. Especially when you are talking about alcohol, which is seemingly everywhere.

Best practice is to avoid places you frequented to buy alcohol/drugs or to use alcohol/drugs:  liquor stores, bars, certain restaurants, friends’ houses, dark mysterious alleyways.

If it triggers a craving, it’s best to avoid it. 

If you can’t avoid it?  Like, for instance, you absolutely must make an appearance at a business happy hour, or, if you did most of your drinking at home?

For the former, try going with a friend or accountability buddy. Talk through the scenario out loud beforehand, set a time limit on how long you’re going to be there, and stick with your game plan. 

For the latter, flip the script and change your perspective and your routine. Instead of winding down the day with a beer or a glass of wine, grab a sparkling water or some fruit juice.

Go for a walk. Do a ten-minute meditation or start a hobby like gardening or crafting.

Places are usually relapse triggers because we associate them with some sort of memory. If you can’t completely avoid a place, try to create a new, healthier association in your mind.   

2. Friends who Drink/Use 

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but hanging with friends who are drinking and/or actively using drugs is mostly an “avoid” situation.

This is especially true if said friends may have also been your dealer, or if they’re less than encouraging of your sober status.

True friends really will be supportive, and if they’re not, it may be a sign that they have a problem of their own or that it’s better for their poor self-esteem to keep you down with them in unhealthy behaviors.

Hanging out with friends or even family who are active in addiction is playing with fire.  If you want to change your life and lifestyle, surround yourself with friends who want the same things you do. Hang out with people who motivate you to be the best version of yourself. 

3. Smoking Cigarettes Can Be a Huge Relapse Trigger 

Smoking cigarettes is a trigger to many because it often went hand-in-hand with drinking or using another drug. Smoke breaks at the bar are not uncommon. Neither are smoke breaks while smoking weed or anything else.

Because nicotine is a pretty addictive substance itself, this one may be hard to quit or avoid.  Associating it with other activities may be your only recourse.   

Oddly enough, for me, I associate cigarettes with rehab and NOT drinking.

That and insane amounts of coffee.    

4. Holidays/Celebrations 

Holidays can be a relapse trigger for a variety of reasons. Maybe the stress of being around friends and family is triggering enough on its own.

Perhaps it’s the constant barrage of parties and the pressure of the holiday season sparking the desire to escape or use something to “take the edge off.”

Celebrating the New Year or a wedding reception can be difficult for some without a glass of champagne in hand.   

No matter the reason, these are events that we usually know are coming well beforehand.  Rather than let it be a stressor for days or weeks, this is a perfect opportunity to practice meditation and a new way of thinking.

Walking through the event in your mind beforehand – how you WANT it to go (without drugs and alcohol) – is a great practice.

I usually start with the all-important thought that, “I really want to remember this holiday/event,” and proceed from there.

Bringing your own sparkling water/soda is completely acceptable. Limiting time spent at the event is also acceptable.  

Quality time is infinitely better than a quantity of time that is potentially unhealthy. 

5. Videos/Films/Pictures 

When I was in rehab, this was the trigger that was talked about most frequently. It was to the point that during any group movie time or time spent watching the news, people would yell out “Trigger!” if an actor was doing any sort of drug or a beer commercial happened to come on.  

Somehow this never got old.   

Jokes aside, films and pictures can’t always be avoided, nor is it always as simple as the commercial of a favorite liquor.

Any picture that looks like drug paraphernalia or is a reminder of a time spent in addiction could be a relapse trigger.  

As with places, if you can plan ahead and avoid pictures, films, or videos that could be a trigger, then please do so! If you can’t, starting the day with meditation and healthy practices can center your mind from the start and set you up for a day where any little surprise can be taken in stride. 

6. Sex Can Be a Powerful Relapse Trigger

Sex can easily be a relapse trigger because many of the reasons behind drinking or using comes down to the more basic excuse of wanting to feel something else, feeling something more, or to numb unwanted emotions.  

Some people may feel insecure about sex and alcohol or drugs were a way to relax beforehand.  

Or maybe drugs and alcohol were used to “enhance” the sexual experience.   

Either way, sex may be something that requires some mental reframing so it doesn’t remain a trigger for something unhealthy. 

7. High Anxiety 

Any emotion can be what is known as an internal trigger – feelings that people have before or while using alcohol and/or drugs.

Extreme emotions such as high anxiety can be especially problematic because they often come on suddenly and can’t be avoided.  

For me, anxiety is the worst of extreme emotions. Feeling anxious sparks a desire to numb that feeling, and the quickest way I used to know how to do that is by drowning the emotion out with alcohol.  

Since that is not a healthy reaction, I am now resorting to other things. 

Beginning the day with meditation and a clear mind certainly helps keep anxiety at bay. In a moment of anxiety, deep breathing techniques or going on a short run can distract and calm down the parading thoughts.  

Finally, talking about anxiety or any relapse trigger is always helpful. This can be via a meeting, therapy, calling a friend, or any other safe outlet.   

8. Scents/Smells Are Some of the Most Powerful Relapse Triggers That Exist

Of the five senses, our sense of smell is most directly connected to the part of the brain that controls emotion.  

This is because scent has the power to almost immediately bring about a strong memory. The smell of apple pie might take you back to your childhood at Grandma’s house. A skunky smell might remind you of good weed and nights playing cards, smoking, and drinking at a party. 

Because this is a relapse trigger that hits without warning, you simply need to be mentally prepared all of the time.

Meditation in the morning and starting your day on a positive note can help. If the relapse trigger is really strong, maybe you need to walk away for a bit and refocus.  

Once again, identifying that there is a trigger and acknowledging it can also take a lot of the power away from it.   

9. Euphoric Recall 

Euphoric recall is a state in which a person remembers a situation or memory with “rose-colored glasses.”

Negative aspects of the past vanish while positives are embellished. An intense memory can open up the same part of the brain active in the original act, often making the memory feel even more pleasurable than the event itself.

Euphoric recall is not the same as cravings, but failure to recognize negative realities could prompt cravings. 

A few signs of euphoric recall

  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Blocking out negative consequences of past behaviors 
  • Sudden pessimistic view of life in recovery 
  • Mood swings 
  • Depression 
  • Irritability 
  • Hopelessness

Allowing the mind to remember only the positive might signal avoidance of current reality. It’s important to be able to check yourself and recognize these signs.  

Because it’s often hard to recognize these behaviors on your own, keeping people around you who will hold you accountable is imperative to recovery. 

Once you identify that you (or someone else) are in euphoric recall, you can use negative recall or different grounding techniques to bring you back to reality.   

Negative recall challenges the pleasure aspects of drinking, using, or any other addiction by focusing on the consequences of engaging in any of those unhealthy behaviors.   

“Play out the scenario.” How are you going to feel in the morning? Do you know where you will end up in the morning if you make it through until morning at all? When the high is gone, how are you going to feel? Keeping reality in focus diminishes euphoric recall. 

Another great way to refocus your mind and prevent yourself from being swept up in euphoric recall is to use grounding techniques to snap back into the present. Grounding activates the senses and brings awareness to the here and now.   

A few examples of grounding techniques: 

  • Feeling the texture of the chair you’re sitting on or the beads of a bracelet 
  • Taking off your shoes and feeling the grass or earth between your toes 
  • Taking a bite or a sip of something and savoring each flavor 
  • Playing an instrument, journaling, drawing something 
  • Using aromatherapy or essential oils to anchor your senses through smell 

Really anything that helps tune you into your surroundings and the present moment using your five senses is a great way to keep you grounded and also aid in self-soothing. 

10. Going to the Doctor Can be a Relapse Trigger for Some

Going to the Doctor can be a huge relapse trigger. Not only does it have the potential of stirring up anxiety beforehand, but a doctor visit may also be more stressful if your drug of choice involved pills or needles.  

Let’s say you have back pain going on and decide to visit a doctor. If the doctor doesn’t know you have a history of addiction, they may prescribe you a narcotic for pain. Just by going to see a doctor, you know in your head that you could ask for narcotic painkillers.  

Another trigger associated with doctor visits is the use of needles, specifically for IV drug users. IV drug users romanticize the whole process of preparing a drug to inject. Getting shots at a doctor’s office can completely set off euphoric recall for an addict.

Euphoric recall can actually cause someone to feel a rush as if they got high. This can send them straight on their way to buy IV drugs.  

Not everyone can avoid seeing a doctor for the rest of their life. It’s important to have a support network of sober addicts so you can call someone before and after your doctor visit.

Discuss your feelings honestly and openly, and the trigger is likely to lose its power. If you pray, utilize prayer. Ask for help from your higher power. It really does work. 

11. “I woke up this morning”

Let’s face it: sometimes a place, thing, or feeling isn’t necessary.  Sometimes the reality of simply existing is trigger enough.   

Keeping up a steady regime of healthy practices is the best recourse.   

  • Taking personal time for meditation and reflection 
  • Praying to your higher power 
  • Changing routines and avoiding known triggers 
  • Adopting new interests and hobbies 
  • Practicing breathing exercises 
  • Surrounding yourself with a community of sober, like-minded individuals 

Don’t Feel Ashamed of Relapse Triggers

Don’t feel ashamed if something triggers you. Shame can cause you to keep your feelings to yourself. In recovery, they say “you are only as sick as your secrets.”

What are your relapse triggers? Let me know in the comments.

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Lindsey Black

Lindsey Black is a writer, artist, and mental health advocate. As a person in recovery herself, Lindsey gives a unique perspective on addiction, mental health, and is passionate about helping victims of domestic violence. She is a runner, avid reader, and a crossword puzzle enthusiast.