One of the long-standing obstacles to recovery is the emotional and physical cues that we experience, which can make us feel like using the substances we have put down for good. These cues are most commonly referred to as triggers, and they can manifest differently for different people. For some, seeing old friends and loved ones is enough to trigger wanting a drink; for others, the stress of performing well at work or school elicits the old feelings of using performance enhancing substances. Whatever the cause, triggers should be expected—and like many other facets of recovery, expecting and planning for them is the best course of action for success.
How do you identify triggers?
Identifying a trigger is not always easy as they can sometimes have no direct somatic effect (a physical effect on your body). However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has driven considerable work into the trigger concept and provides the most common types of symptoms brought on by an addiction trigger. NIH breaks these down into categories—physical and psychological symptoms—and knowing about both can help you protect your recovery.
- May include tightness in your stomach.
- Feeling nervous through your body.
- May include increased thoughts of how good you would like to feel from using drugs.
- Remembering times you used in the past.
- Planning how you would go about getting substances.
- Feeling you need substances.
What kind of triggers are there?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug use (alcohol, illicit, or other legal substances) triggers are most commonly placed in two categories: stress cues linked in some way to previous drug experience and actual exposure to drugs in our life. For example, putting yourself in situations where drug use is prominent—for instance, a bar—is likely to lead to exposure triggers.
Similarly, seeing old friends or using acquaintances out in the world is likely to bring on an experience trigger. With today’s modern technology, it is also common for social media usage to result in both types of triggers depending on the friends and pages you engage with on a regular basis. The National Institutes of Health has curated the most common types of triggers as well, in hopes that it can prepare you for their appearance:
- Exposure to the substance itself.
- Seeing other people using.
- Contact with people, places, times of day, and situations commonly associated with using (such as drinking buddies, parties, and bars, getting home from work, weekends).
- Particular types of emotions (such as frustration, fatigue, feeling stressed out); even positive emotions (elation, excitement, feelings of accomplishment) can be triggers.
- Physical feelings (feeling sick, shaky, tense).
How do you manage and prevent triggers?
The easiest way to manage and prevent triggers is to avoid them in the first place. However, this is not always realistic in practical life, and having a set of skills to effectively manage your triggers will help you. First and foremost, do your best to avoid the triggers which happen most often—get rid of any substances still in your house, delete friends and old using partners off social media, do not plan to go to bars or parties, etc. These easy tasks are the easiest way to prevent triggers from popping up—but they will not always be successful. When triggers do occur, there are some proven strategies for managing and overcoming them.
Engage in some form of distracting activity
This may be reading a book, cleaning the house, going for a walk, playing a video game; whatever you can do to distract yourself completely for a short amount of time is often enough to overcome a trigger.
Talk it through
As is often encouraged in recovery, talking through your triggering experience with a mentor, sponsor, loved one, or friend can help you process, overcome, and prevent the same trigger from occurring in the future.
Challenge and change your thoughts
Often when a trigger occurs, we find ourselves only remembering the good things about our previous use; changing the way we think about this use (actually remembering the awful things that usually happened) can help us change our thoughts which can help overcome a trigger.
No one strategy or set of practices can prevent or manage every trigger you might experience in your recovery. Developing a set of these strategies is advisable as you will have a myriad of tools available to you to overcome triggers and prevent relapse.
Are there medications to help with preventing triggers?
If employing the strategies above have provided you no relief, or on the recommendation of a medical professional, various medications have been developed to disrupt cravings and triggers in your life. These medications should only be used if prescribed, and you should always use a non-medication strategy in collaborative with these medications as well.
Alcohol and Other Drug Addiction
What to do if triggers result in a relapse?
Understanding triggers and how they can impact your recovery can often prevent relapse from occurring. However, addiction and the process of recovery is non-linear and sometimes strategies for overcoming triggers may prove unsuccessful. If this happens, individualized treatment plans can help get you back on the road to recovery and provide you with the necessary tools to stay there.
National Institute of Drug Abuse. “Drug, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction”. NIDA/NIH. 1 July 2014. 14 September 2016. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recoveryNational Institutes of Health. “Introduction to Coping Skills Training”. NIH/NIAA. 1 February 2006. 14 September 2016. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/MATCHSeries3/core.htm#2
National Institutes of Health. “Introduction to Coping Skills Training”. NIH/NIAA. 1 February 2006. 14 September 2016. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/MATCHSeries3/core.htm#2
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