Relapse occurs when an individual in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction returns to substance use. Typically a relapse trigger or stressor is something that reminds an individual of their past substance use and makes them want to use drugs or drink alcohol.
The idea that relapse triggers can be removed permanently is a common addiction recovery myth.
However, there are behavioral warning signs that can be recognized when an individual encounters a trigger - and if recognized, they can be interrupted.
Common Relapse Triggers & Stressors
Triggers that spark a craving for substance use can be different for everyone, but most common are emotional, environmental, or mental triggers. It could be stress, boredom, guilt or another emotion, or people and places connected to the behavior.
1. HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired
The feelings of hunger, anger, loneliness or being tired are often common triggers that could lead to relapse. Making sure to avoid becoming too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired need to become priorities. This may mean planning meals, sticking to a strict sleep schedule, and attending support groups.
2. Emotions: Stress, Boredom & Guilt
One way to prepare for this trigger is to evaluate the stress you're experiencing. What situations cause extreme stress? Are you in a toxic relationship or do you have a financial situation that is stressing you out?
By making changes to lifestyle, relationships and priorities it’s possible to reduce your stress. It’s also important to learn positive ways to successfully manage stress, like practicing mindfulness, journaling, and managing time effectively to avoid operating in panic mode.
In early recovery, individuals can feel bored. Without even realizing it, they have previously filled so much of their day with substance use and now with discontinued use, it seems there are hours upon hours of idle time. Creating a schedule to manage boredom in early recovery will encourage formation of new healthy lifestyle choices.
3. People & Places
A surefire relapse trigger is being around substance abuse or people who participated in the addictive behavior with you, regardless of whether or not they are still using. Likewise, certain places that remind you of your addiction can be triggering.
Steering clear of people, places, and things related to substance use is important to sobriety.
When you're reminded of the addiction, it's important to have effective ways of handling it. For example, if you're an alcoholic and you see people from work going to happy hour, it might help to have a specific response ready.
It also may help to have a healthy activity that you can do instead - like going for a run, meeting with a sponsor, or reading a good book.
Preventative measures are one of the most important ways to minimize the effects of relapse triggers. Creating a personal, written relapse prevention plan is important because it gives a detailed, structured plan to follow with good ideas to stay on track for recovery goals. It’s a chance to take control and recognize situations that might lead to relapse - with a plan of action already in place.
More tips to sidestepping relapse triggers:
Rely on loved ones - healthy relationships help individuals keep up recovery.
Make a fuss over milestones - anything and everything like completing a rehab program, remaining sober for 6 months, or getting through a rough day. It adds to a sense of accomplishment.
Coping With Triggers
It’s not always possible to avoid triggers. When faced with a potential trigger, here are several potential actions:
Distracting Activity: this might include working out at the gym, journaling, playing an instrument, or reading. Anything that doesn’t remind you of past drug use and can help refocus.
Connect With Someone: talk with a sponsor if you’re part of a 12-step program or talk with a supportive family member or friend in your sober support network