Relapsing is a common occurrence in addiction recovery, with rates similar to those of other chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma. While it’s nothing to be ashamed of, relapsing can be dangerous (people overestimate their tolerance after being sober for a period, making accidental overdoses an all-too-common tragedy), and anything that can help minimize the odds of it happening is a good thing. One of the most effective ways to do this is by understanding relapse triggers–what they are, what they matter, and how to deal with them. 

What’s a relapse trigger?

A trigger is an involuntary emotional response caused by either internal or external stimuli. Sometimes, a trigger may incur a mental illness episode (i.e. a PTSD flashback). In the case of addiction, however, a relapse trigger is something that physically or emotionally reminds a person about their substance abuse.  

Why this matters

How much damage can a memory cause? You might be wondering. The answer: a whole lot. Anything that opens the brain up to the rabbit hole that is reminiscing about using drugs can quickly put you in the first and second stages of relapsing. 

The first stage is emotional relapse. During this stage, you’re not actively thinking about using drugs but something has put you in a mood (e.g. anxiety, depression, anger) that’s likely to reduce your self-control and put you in an emotionally charged state. 

These emotions are powerful and can be harmful to a person in recovery because they take over the brain, pushing logic to the side (you’re a lot less likely to remember your breathing exercises or the coping mechanisms you created with your therapist if you’re emotionally worked up).  (which can be particularly destructive if they’re similar to the emotional conditions you typically had when using drugs in the past),

Then there is mental relapse, which is where things really get hard. If after experiencing either an emotional or physical trigger you find yourself fantasizing about using drugs again, you’re going down a dangerous path. 

As the saying goes, “If there’s a will, there’s a way”, and your brain is very, very, willing to resume using drugs again. In fact, the primary goal of drug rehab is to recondition your brain to unlearn the destructive habits developed during addiction. Simply entertaining the idea of drug use can be enough to wipe out weeks, months, or even years of sobriety.  

What are the three most common triggers for relapse for substance abuse?

A relapse triggers list could go on forever; as everyone’s experience with addiction is unique. These are the most common ones:  

  1. Stress

One of the most common reasons some people develop a drug addiction is that they attempt to use chemical substances as a coping mechanism for dealing with stressful situations. Stress is also a very common emotion, one we might experience multiple times a day. The source can be something minor (e.g. getting cut off in traffic) or something major (e.g. forgetting an important deadline or getting into an argument with your significant other). This double whammy is why the silent killer is one of the most common relapse triggers.

How to deal with it: Deep breathing is a physical exercise that is immediately calming and scientifically proven to lower a person’s stress levels. It’s easy to do, just focus on deep, long inhales and exhales until you feel less agitated. A longer-term solution to managing stress the healthy way is to regularly practice mindfulness exercises, which will make it easier to ground yourself in the face of future stressors. 

  1. People & places from your past

To be more specific, it’s the people and places associated with past drug use that could be potential triggers. They might have a direct link to your old drug using behavior (e.g. your old dealer) or are linked to an emotional state you associated with your drug use (e.g. an abusive ex that made you feel helpless or an overbearing parent that made you feel ashamed). 

How to deal with it: Don’t leave it up to a chance encounter to consider if a person or place might be triggering to you. Make a list of the people and places associated with your drug-using past life and steer clear of them (at the very least, during the first months of sobriety). Have an arsenal of excuses to gracefully turn down invites, leave early, or back out of plans that involve being in an environment that’s going to pull you down memory lane. 

  1. Drug paraphernalia or drug use

For a recovering alcoholic, watching a person guzzle a beer would be an understandable trigger. A syringe might be one for a narcotics user. These reminders can be found in movies, tv-shows, music, and books, making it difficult for a person to ever fully remove themselves without relocating to a controlled environment.. 

How to deal with it: Give yourself the best shot at sobriety by enrolling at a drug rehab. These facilities specialize in creating an environment that’s safe for all and conducive to healing. Find one near you today.