Breaking the Cycle of Triggers, Relapse and Addiction

Posted on January 10th, 2014

The process of recovery from addiction presents many challenges, but one of the most significant is overcoming the psychological grasp of “triggers” or “cues” to use drugs. Relapse is a daily reality in treatment centers, and one of the main reasons it’s so common is that triggers and cues to use exert a very real psychological power. Learning to deal with triggers is never easy, but it helps to understand the theory behind drug triggers and some common techniques used to overcome them.

What Are Triggers?

Triggers come in many forms, but the basic definition is that a trigger is anything that reminds an ex or current drug user of his or her addiction and evokes a desire to use again. An example would be a street corner used for drug deals or an event like a birthday when friends and family drink heavily. They work on a fairly simplistic idea of “conditioning,” where a stimulus is associated with a reward. The archetypal example of this is Pavlov’s dog, who began to salivate at the sound of a bell because he had learned to associate the sound with a coming meal.

Like Pavlov’s dog, we’re constantly responding to stimuli in the world around us. For example, an office worker may start clock-watching toward the end of a shift, eager to go home after having realized that it’s approaching five and starting to anticipate his reward. Drug addicts are no different, except that significant rewards are associated with substance-related stimuli.

Internal and External Triggers

Not all triggers come from the outside world, however. A drug-using friend might make a recovering user think about the times they did drugs together, but the more significant triggers are often the ones that come from within. Extending the example, while the presence of a drug-using friend could be a superficial trigger, the deeper-seated issue of low self-esteem (which may lead the individual to take drugs to “fit in” or out of a belief it makes him or her more likeable) is likely to be a bigger problem that manifests itself in many different ways. In this case, a bad performance review at work, for example, may lead to the same feelings of low-self worth that spiral into drug use. Similarly, a worsening of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems may serve as an internal trigger.

Why Dealing with Triggers Is Essential

Nobody wants to address these things about themselves and delve so uncomfortably deeply into their own psyche, but when your brain is wired for abuse, it does take some conscious adjustment to overcome the problem. When triggers occur, the individual feels the same sort of desire to use as they did at the height of their addiction, even if he or she has been abstinent for months (or even years) leading up to that point. It’s like jumping right back into addiction all over again.

Becoming aware of this potential takes away some of its power. Avoiding triggers can only work for so long; the best advice is to plan ahead regarding how to deal with triggers and cues to use. For example, if you’re going to a party where people will be drinking excessively, think about what you’re going to say when somebody offers you a drink, and how you need to remember the reasons you stopped drinking when that question comes up. If you might fail an important test, what are you going to do to deal with the low feelings that would follow without relying on drugs? These strategies develop and strengthen with time, and the more times you encounter—and resist—a trigger to use, the less powerful it will become.


The theory behind beating triggers and the cravings that come with them is simple enough, but putting it into practice is much more challenging. If you encounter a trigger, try to take a moment to analyze what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking it and what the end-consequence would be if you gave in to temptation. You do have the power to resist, as long as you have a robust set of healthy coping mechanisms to replace your old habits.

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