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Types of Relapse Triggers and How to Avoid Them

Types of Relapse Triggers and How to Avoid Them

Relapse is a hard part of the sobriety process. Understanding what exactly you can do to avoid a relapse yourself is your ticket to success. Be on the lookout for these parts below so that you can be your best self and find the most success when walking the worn, weary and hard road to sobriety.


Your path to sobriety starts with a single step, but it comes with the expectation that you will make many more sequential steps following it. Some say that the first step is the hardest – others say that different stages are harder. The truth is that living a sober life after you’ve been addicted will always be a challenge. Relapse is unfortunately a part of the process that one typically goes through. While nobody should be expecting or planning to relapse, creating a plan for when it happens is a recipe for success. Nobody is perfect, and understanding that you have the potential to do something bad if you don’t put yourself in the position to succeed is what can typically bring someone down.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines “relapse” as the recurrence of behavioral or other substantive indicators of active disease after a period of remission. For example, someone who had completely stopped drinking for a period of time would be experiencing a relapse if they resumed drinking in an unhealthy manner. If they had just one drink, they might be considered as having a “slip,” but not a full relapse.

It’s not uncommon for people who struggle with addictions to relapse at least once during recovery. Some even fall off the wagon several times before getting sober for the last time. In fact, despite FDA-approved treatments for nicotine, alcohol, and opioid addiction, more than two-thirds of individuals will relapse after initiating treatment. This means that if you are struggling, you’re actually not alone. Though you may feel alone, reach out to your friends. They can help you. If you have friends who have been in similar situations they might be able to empathize with you and help you along your journey, or give you tips on how they have beaten their addiction themselves. If you have friends that also struggle with this, encouraging each other to get clean together can lead to a great, strong friendship if you both stay the course and work to better each other.

Understanding what might trigger you to relapse as well as having a plan in the place for these triggers are the first steps toward prevention. Here are just a few triggers you need to consider and talk to your therapist or counselor about. Create a plan, and execute on it.


Stress is the number one cause of relapse. Many people who struggle with addiction turn to their substance or activity of choice as a way of coping with it. While this is a completely reasonable situation and one that nearly every individual can empathize with, it’s still not one that people should brush off as “nothing” or excuse in any way. Stress is a factor, but it’s something that can be managed if it’s anticipated. Learn to manage your stress and learn what stresses you so that you can appropriately address each situation in turn, and make plans for those situations. Stress is something that is becoming better researched in the past few years – and this research indicates that stress directly creates an increased longing for the drug, alcohol, or addictive activity during these stressful situations—especially if the substance or activity was the person’s primary coping mechanism.

One way to prepare for this trigger is to evaluate the stress you’re experiencing. Although you can’t eliminate everything and everyone from your life, you can avoid situations that cause you extreme stress, and learn to manage it. Find a safe place from your stress, learn how to deal with it, and move forward. Don’t let your stress paralyze you, but don’t let it be an excuse for your addiction. Stress is the enemy here, not you or the people that could stress you out. All of these things that can be stressful might be hard to keep track of, therefore, it may help to list all the people, places, and things that cause you excessive stress, and determine what’s worth living through/with and working through, and what’s just not worth it at all. Self-awareness is key. If you’ve made it this far, you have probably already made the decision in your mind to make changes – which is good! When making these lists remember the biggest red flag of all – if everything stresses you out, no matter what, no matter who, it might be time to look inward. Change your behavior during these situations and see what results you might get. Note if anything changes. If nothing, move on. If something, take heart that you’re on your way to a better, happier, and overall more fulfilling life.

After you have identified relationships and situations that cause you stress, determine if those are people and places you can avoid, or at least limit. Reducing stress will benefit your health in many other ways as well.

It’s also important to learn positive ways to successfully manage the stress that you can’t eliminate. You might be able to reduce or manage your stress by:

  • Practicing mindfulness and engaging in relaxation training
  • Managing your time more effectively to avoid operating in panic mode
  • Increasing healthy behaviors by incorporating moderate exercise and healthy eating

Reducing the likelihood that stress will trigger a relapse not only involves finding healthier ways of dealing with stress but being able to recognize when you are in a stressful situation and doing something to alleviate it.

These solutions aren’t complete – and some people will have better results with one method than another. Make sure you take the time to try all of them and give them all a fair shot before moving on, and once you’ve found one that works, keep trying other methods to really find the one that’s best for you.

Encountering People or Places Connected to the Addictive Behavior

People who participated in your addictive behavior are potential triggers for a relapse, regardless of whether or not they are still drinking, smoking, or using drugs. Likewise, certain places that remind you of your addiction can be triggering for you. Humans are interesting creatures in that we make connections easily and quickly recognize those connections and can make moral judgements based on our feelings about them. Once these judgements have been made, it can be difficult to see a different side of things. When doing this expansive life-evaluation, take the time to really think about these connections and how they affect you.

When you’re reminded of your addiction, it’s important to have effective ways of handling your feelings. For instance, if you’re an alcoholic and a group of drinking buddies ask you to go out, or you see people from work going to happy hour, it might help to have a specific response ready – “no.” Taking yourself out of those situations before they happen is key to success.

Sometimes people can be subtle triggers and they might not seem like immediately obvious triggers. This is why it’s so important to keep a check on your connections and reevaluate those judgements that you may have made initially.

Having alternatives to do when you’re met with something that you want to do but know is a trigger is important. Think about things that you could do instead of indulging your vice. Play video games, take a walk in the park, go on a run, see a movie, have dinner with a friend, read a book, start binge watching a television series. The opportunities are endless and they can be explored in depth – the point is, if the first time you say “no” to something and then dwell on how bad you feel that you’re missing out after you did, you haven’t created a full plan. Take the time to really evaluate what’s going to be best for you and how to execute on it.

Negative or Challenging Emotions

Emotions rule our lives. Learning how to manage these emotions or ride them out is your own decision. How you choose to live your life is completely up to you, so long as you take the time to realize what has a real, tangible effect on how you live your life.

People who struggle with addiction need effective ways of tolerating, managing, and making sense of the negative feelings encountered in daily life. Alcohol, drugs, or addictive behaviors used to provide temporary relief from those feelings, but you can’t rely on them anymore. What are you going to do when you’re met with these uncomfortable feelings? The honest response is, hopefully, you’ll face them and try to overcome them. Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done.

When you experience these emotions, view them as an opportunity for growth and understanding. Traumatizing emotions can feel like an unwinnable battle, but rest assured you can do it. There are people before you and there will be people after you. Take heart, believe that you are good enough, and you will be. You can learn a lot about yourself by taking an inventory of what you’re feeling and asking yourself why. Learning how to face your emotions without escaping into addiction will serve you well for a lifetime.

So, try journaling, meditating, or praying when you are feeling negative. Find a healthy way to release your negativity and boost your mood.

Seeing or Sensing the Object of Your Addiction

Reminders of your addiction can trigger relapse during recovery. A whiff of cigarette smoke, watching people sip cocktails in a bar or restaurant (or even on TV) are reminders that seem to be everywhere in the early stages of abstinence. These triggers make casual drinking much more enticing, and might make you feel like your vice is much more accepted than you want it to be, or you actually believe it is. Take the time to recognize this as a potential trigger and know what you will do as a consequence.

Times when you’re alone are the hardest. Watching TV alone might entice you into indulging your vice in a way that you might not want to. Having a close friend or sponsor on the line ready for these kinds of moments is important. Ask them to be ready for you to call when these feelings emerge, and trust that they will be there for you to talk you down.

Wanting to fall back into your addiction is normal. After all, it’s a familiar place for you. But recovery is not just about “quitting” and “abstaining” as much as it’s about building a new life in which it is easier—and more desirable—not to use.

Focus on the new life you’re building and the changes you’re making. Think about the negative consequences that you experienced while participating in your addiction—the people you hurt and the relationships you lost.

Having a substitute behavior like going to a yoga class or taking a long bath also can be helpful when you’re feeling triggered. Even reciting positive mantras or doing relaxation exercises may help you resist these urges as well.

Times of Celebration

This is potentially one of the trickiest situations to deal with. Celebrations are plenty, especially in the summer months. Open bars are enticing, but one must stay away from them if they think they can’t handle themselves. What can you/can’t you deal with? Learning your limits is best to do when you’re not alone – but with someone that you can openly trust and say “hey friend, I need you to stop me from x right now, please encourage me.”

Without this positive system, there’s a chance for critical failure. Don’t let that be you.

Positive situations, such as birthdays and holidays, can be triggers too. You may feel happy, in control, and confident you can handle one drink, but can you really keep it under control?

People who struggle with addiction frequently lose their capacity to know when to stop. Therefore, that one drink could turn into a binge. Put together a plan on how to handle the temptations that come with fun events like parties, weddings, holidays, and more. If you go into the situation unprepared, you’re more likely to relapse.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, reach out to us at EcoSoberHouse.com right away and get the help you need.

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