Congratulations, you’ve graduated! You’ve reached the goals you set out to achieve in a treatment facility.
You’re sober and ready to step into the next phase of recovery. You’re feeling healthy with a renewed sense of purpose and a clear head!
This is great news, but there lurk those elements of your life that started your addiction in the past: triggers.
This word has leaked into the everyday vernacular of social media users and media outlets across the political spectrum. However, they’re commenting on a different type of trigger, one that can lead to emotional distress or violence but is not related to addiction.
With that in mind, let’s define the kind of triggers that everyone who overcomes a substance use or behavioral disorder should be aware of. AddictScience.com defines triggers simply: “What addicts call ‘triggers’ scientists refer to as ‘cues,’ powerful emotional memories of drug-taking.”
A trigger can remind an individual of their experiences and mental state while using a substance and cause them to seek out that same harmful experience again.
These reminders can be challenging to avoid, so it’s important to understand the many ways in which they can manifest. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) offers one of the most thorough and scientific overviews of addictions and the factors that can lead to relapses.
ASAM provides a more clinical description of the risks associated with triggers: “Persistent risk and/or recurrence of relapse, after periods of abstinence, is another fundamental feature of addiction. This can be triggered by exposure to rewarding substances and behaviors, by exposure to environmental cues to use, and by exposure to emotional stressors that trigger heightened activity in brain stress circuits.”
The following list includes some potential examples of these means of “exposure.” These are the kinds of situations (or “reminders” or “triggers”) that are important to tread lightly on as you move along your journey. As you will read, some triggers are unavoidable. What’s important is how you handle them when they arise.
- HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. This acronym contains a list of common mental states that you may have handled with substance use in the past.
- Stress. Stress at work, at home, or anywhere is one of the most common feelings that can tempt you to return to old, destructive behaviors.
- Overconfidence. When you achieve some confidence in your sobriety, it’s imperative to check yourself and not fall into the trap of overconfidence.
- Mental or physical illness. Be sure you continue to attend to any underlying mental or physical illnesses, especially if you’ve used substances to self-medicate in the past.
- Social isolation. It can be tempting to want to be alone at some point in your recovery, but you must remember, as always, that effective recovery is a social process. A network of support is paramount to maintaining healthy sobriety.
- Sex and relationships. Many professionals recommend abstaining from a romantic relationship for the first year after beginning recovery. This is particularly important if a breakup has the potential to be a trigger.
- Social situations or places where substances are available. Perhaps obvious, but difficult to avoid, being where substances are is often a tangible and potentially potent trigger. Simply reminiscing about or glamorizing past drug use is also something to avoid.
This is not a complete list. Triggers will vary from person to person and from substance to substance. Develop your understanding of them now and observe what other situations may be triggers in your life. Then, you’ll be able to heighten your awareness of the risks they pose.
Dr. Steven M. Melemis offers another useful resource that will bolster your knowledge of triggers and the three stages of relapse they can contribute to: emotional, mental, and physical. The signs he mentions in the first stage — emotional — are particularly aligned with the others mentioned in this post:
- Mood swings
- Not asking for help
- Not going to meetings
- Poor eating habits
- Poor sleep habits
A video on Dr. Melemis’s page provides an easy-to-digest and straightforward overview of relapse and relapse prevention. It’s a worthwhile six-minute watch to add to your arsenal on avoiding relapse triggers.
One way to combat triggers of any kind is to work with a recovery specialist to establish a relapse recovery plan. Take a moment to speak to a recovery professional at Willingway about any questions about relapse, even after you’ve completed your program at the facility.
Triggers of Addiction. Retrieved July, 2017.