Managing Triggers That Can Lead to Drug Relapse

By Christian Castaneda, LCSW, Program Director at Promises Malibu When you’re in addiction recovery, the whole world can become a trigger for drug relapse. If you’re addicted to alcohol and you walk past a bar where you see old friends, it may stimulate your memory of old times. If you are addicted to pornography, you might find that having access to a computer with internet can trigger your compulsion. Obviously, you want to avoid these triggers. But relapse triggers are not always so obvious. This is why it’s important that people in addiction recovery learn to develop an awareness of the kinds of things that can put their sobriety in jeopardy.

H.A.L.T. and Recognize Risk Factors for Relapse

At Promises, our recommended approach for avoiding relapse triggers falls under the well-known acronym, H.A.L.T. The following are signs that you must stop and take care of your basic needs:

  • This can mean a need for food, but also emotional needs that can impact your state of mind.
  • You have the right to feel anger, but slow down and assess when and why you are upset.
  • People with addiction tend to isolate and feel alone even when people are around. Be aware if you are isolating and take steps to reconnect.
  • Lack of sleep, or the stress of too many things going on logistically or emotionally, can wear you down.

Falling into any of these trigger states can be avoided by making small adjustments. It may mean planning meals and maintaining a sleep schedule, or increasing engagement with your social support groups.

Behaviors to Help Manage Relapse Triggers

Some people who have returned to addiction treatment indicate they felt too confident about their recovery, which led to relapse. While confidence is beneficial, overconfidence can lead to falling back into old patterns. Here are some of the keys to avoiding this pitfall:

1. Emotional honesty

It is important to do frequent self check-ins so you can be honest about how you’re feeling. It’s impossible to avoid sadness, anger, guilt and loneliness, but if you build the capacity to recognize and verbalize how you feel, it’s going to be much easier to identify a moment that is leading to a relapse trigger and take steps to de-escalate.

2. Practicing humility

Some people report they placed themselves in risky situations leading to temptation, thinking they could handle it, and then once again found themselves drinking or using drugs. Helping people recognize a state of overconfidence and working toward a state of humility is something that we often advocate. It will only work in your favor if you allow yourself to humbly admit you are not yet out of the woods.

3. Knowing you need help

When people feel overly confident they sometimes start skipping follow-up appointments with the appropriate practitioners. Avoiding those appointments can lead to negative thinking, isolation and a general reluctance to keep working your recovery program.

4. Keeping clear of negative influences

Drifting back to an old social network can lead to relapse. Focus instead on new social networks that support and empower sobriety.

5. Embracing sober communities

Keeping yourself active in a sober community is important. Fortunately, there are several self-help support programs such as SMART Recovery and 12-step meetings available all over the world. These groups offer an opportunity to learn from people who have gone down this road before. You can leave the dogma behind and frame it as spending time with people who have had a shared experience.

6. Surrendering

Believing “I can do this on my own” is premature in the early stages of recovery. People may be hesitant to “surrender” to a higher power, but sometimes it helps to realize this may be surrendering to the help of people with greater wisdom and knowledge than you currently have, or to a greater support system that may have traveled this road before.

7. Multidisciplinary treatment

In order to stay healthy and balanced, you must consider numerous aspects of keeping your recovery on track. You want to make sure you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and medically by maintaining some of the following:

  • Addiction counseling and treatment
  • Continued care for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
  • Keeping all medical appointments and scheduling new ones as needed
  • Making sure you have all the medications you need, and refilling them when low
  • A variety of psychological and somatic therapeutic approaches to help with balance, mindfulness, trauma, emotional regulation and crisis situations.

Staying sober requires you to stay away from obvious relapse triggers and keep yourself out of situations that may encourage risky behavior. But it is also based on self-care and preventive care, and continuing to develop the awareness to catch yourself before a trigger can catch you.

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