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Triggers in Early Recovery

During early recovery, it is common to experience situations, circumstances, or strong feelings that make a person want to use drugs or alcohol. These emotional or physical cues are often known as triggers. Triggers in sobriety differ widely from person to person; they can include certain neighborhoods, friends and family members, specific events, or just general stress. Triggers can often be both powerful and irrational. No matter how strong an individual’s desire is to stay sober, a trigger can make them feel powerless to say no to substances.

For this reason, recognizing triggers is an important part of the recovery process. Once a trigger has been identified, it is possible to come up with a plan for coping with it. No matter what, triggers are inevitable — but relapse is not inevitable. It is possible to achieve long term sobriety even while dealing with triggers.

Identifying Triggers

Individuals have different triggers in sobriety, so recognizing your own personal ones can be somewhat difficult. In order to do so, it is important to reflect on situations where you have been driven to abuse substances. Many people during active addiction have very predictable patterns and routines when it comes to substance addiction. They may have a specific friend or family member they like to drink with, or they may have a tendency to abuse substances when they’re feeling social anxiety.

Physical Symptoms

When an individual is feeling triggered, it is common for them to feel physical symptoms of unease or discomfort. They may not even register their desire to use substances as a conscious thought. Triggers are often experienced in the body long before they are registered in the brain. Common physical symptoms of triggers in sobriety include:

  • A sense of nervous energy in the body
  • Tightness in the stomach
  • Headaches
  • Lethargy

Getting in touch with your body can help you learn to better recognize these physical symptoms. Yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises can help. With time, you can learn to acknowledge these feelings without necessarily acting on them.

Psychological Symptoms

Often people are triggered by their own thought processes. Addiction is an insidious mental health disorder, and the obsessive thoughts and cravings that characterize it can occur when we least expect them. Common mental symptoms of triggers in sobriety include:

  • Remembering old experiences of substance abuse (including bad memories!)
  • Thinking about how good you’d feel with a drink or drug in your system
  • Planning how you might get access to drugs or alcohol
  • A strong feeling that you need substances
  • Trying to convince yourself you never had a problem with addiction

Learning from Relapse

Relapse is common, and addiction experts even consider it part of the recovery process. After a relapse, it is important not to berate oneself or feel bad. Instead, relapsing can be a vital learning experience. For individuals who have experienced multiple relapses, identifying problematic situations is sometimes easier! Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What was happening when you last felt a strong urge to drink?
  • Where were you?
  • Who were you with?
  • Were there any stressful events in the days or weeks prior?

Types of Triggers in Sobriety

While triggers in sobriety differ widely from person to person, they can generally be categorized in two different ways. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has published research on triggers that identifies these two categories.

Exposure to Substances

The first type is being in a situation that is linked to one’s prior experiences of substances. Exposure to actual drugs and alcohol is the most obvious example of this type of trigger. During early recovery, it is often a good idea to avoid people who are abusing substances and situations where drugs and alcohol will be present. However, this type of trigger can also operate indirectly. Certain situations, people, and places that are linked to a person’s substance abuse history can make them want to use.

Feeling Overwhelmed

The second type of trigger is stress. Being in a distressing situation can make a person want to return to substance abuse, especially when they know that drugs or alcohol would relieve their discomfort — if only temporarily. Stress actually causes problems on a neurological level. It impairs the brain’s executive function — which is the part of the brain that controls rational thinking and decision-making. This can lead a person to return to substances even though they know this is a bad idea.

Common Triggers in Sobriety

Some of the most common triggers people experience include the following:

  • Seeing people using or drinking
  • Being in the vicinity of one’s former substance of choice
  • Contact with friends, family members, or other people who are associated with using
  • Being in situations associated with using (such as bars, parties, or having a weekend without plans)
  • Negative emotions, such as frustration, fatigue, or stress
  • Positive emotions, such as excitement, a sense of accomplishment, or celebratory joy
  • Breakups or getting fired
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Financial distress

Managing and Preventing Triggers in Sobriety

The simplest way of managing triggers in sobriety is obviously to simply avoid them. However, it is not always possible for an individual to avoid all of their potential triggers. This is especially true when triggers include loved ones, going to work, or going to sleep at night. During early recovery, however, it is often best to avoid as many triggers as possible. It might be a good idea to temporarily avoid even close friends, if you had a habit of drinking with them. With time, it is generally possible to return to these relationships on a healthier basis. But first it is important to develop a foundation of new recovery tools.

For the triggers that are impossible to avoid, it is important to make a coping plan in advance. Certain strategies can be employed to deal with triggers without reacting to them automatically. These techniques for overcoming triggers include:

Talking to a Friend

In early recovery, the most important thing you can do is reach out for help. Discussing your feelings or difficult situations with a close friend can put the problem in a new perspective. Sometimes just expressing how you feel is enough to feel better, but often friends are able to offer advice. This is especially true when you chat with someone who is also in recovery. A housemate in a sober living home, a sponsor, or simply a sober mentor can all serve as essential sounding boards.

Distract Yourself

Most triggers fade after some time. Instead of fixating on how you feel or trying to get rid of the feeling, it is often helpful to simply move on. Reading a book, watching a movie, playing a video game, or going for a walk can all help get you out of your head. It often only takes a few minutes for the feeling of crisis to pass.

Challenge Your Automatic Reaction

Triggers in sobriety cause people to behave unthinkingly. Instead of responding to a situation, a person reacts — often automatically. In many cases, triggers cause people to imagine how wonderful it was when they could drink or get high. Try to think rationally about what life was actually like during active addiction. Chances are a few awful consequences spring to mind.

Help when Dealing with Triggers in Sobriety

Triggers are common in the first few months of sobriety, but they can happen to anyone — even people who have been sober for years. It is important to have a support system in place that can help you deal with them. Recovery is a process that takes time.

Design for Recovery, a sober living for men located in West Los Angeles, can help people learn to manage their addiction triggers. Not only do residents work to develop new coping techniques and skills, they support each other in building new lives. Residents pursue sobriety in a safe and trigger-free environment. Moreover, they gain access to a strong sober support system that they can rely on when the going gets tough. Studies on sober livings show that peer support is one of the most important factors in relapse prevention.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re getting sober for the first time, have a history of relapse, or are finishing an addiction treatment program — Design for Recovery is here to help you build a new life that is happy, joyous, free, and above all sober. If you are ready to make a change, contact us today.

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

RADT
David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen
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LMFT
Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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