Triggers and Their Role in Recovery

What is Addiction Part 4: Identifying Triggers for Substance Use

Estimated watch time: 7 mins


When you’re in treatment or recovery for substance use, there may be certain people, places and even emotions that trigger cravings. Triggers can be internal and external.

This video explores how to identify these triggers and understand the role they can play in recovery.

Video Materials:


Triggers and Urges

Hi and welcome to this lesson about triggers, urges and cravings. 

So cravings are one of the symptoms that define addiction and are to be expected in sobriety.

Physically, when you’re addicted to something, your body becomes dependent on having a steady, consistent dose of it in your system. So when that steady dose is diminished, your addictive brain will communicate urges to you to get it, replenish it.

The conditioned, addicted part of your brain will tell you that you need to drink or use to get back to feeling normal.  That’s the cycle of withdrawal.

The psychological urge or craving can feel just as potent and sometimes even stronger.  When drinking or using becomes associated or linked with certain situations, emotions, people or things then those things become triggers. Because that psychological link between triggers and using substances can be very powerful, being in the presence of those triggers can become quite uncomfortable without drugs or alcohol. This experience is called a craving.

So we have what’s called associated learning, and this refers to those people, places and things closely associated with our using and drinking that remind us of our use and are a danger to our sobriety. There are people, places and things we need to let go of or alter the way we expose ourselves to them in order to give ourselves the greatest chance at being sober and creating a more comfortable environment. Making these changes is all about creating a safe space for you to remain sober. Some people have social pressure when they’re around certain people they used to use with. So resisting drinking or using in social situations can be the most challenging situations for some people trying to abstain from alcohol or drug use.

For some people, it’s hard to refuse an offer to use. For other people’s self-consciousness takes over when they’re in a social situation, leading them to worry what others will think of them if they do not drink or use.

Positive emotions are a trigger for some people.

Drinking and using is about amplifying good behaviors for some. So rather than escaping or avoiding an uncomfortable behavior, you’re triggered when you’re feeling good and celebrating when you’re in a really good mood.

It’s important for each of us to identify the triggers that you experience and to notice which ones come up repeatedly for you. If you’re able to understand them and know what they are, you’ll be able to put safeguards in place and make it easier for you to stay sober.

So we all have internal and external triggers. Internal triggers are the emotions that go on inside of you that make you desire using. And external triggers are cues that are outside of you. Those people, places, situations that you have come to associate with your drinking or using.

In the exercise following this lesson, you will identify your internal triggers. Which of these internal triggers do you have? Our body remembers the emotions that we feel inside that make us want to use. For you is that depression, loneliness, happiness, excitement, feeling stressed, feeling irritable, feeling overwhelmed, feeling jealous, anxious, bored, angry, feeling rejected, frustrated, feeling guilt or shame, needing an energy boost or having withdrawal symptoms. So what are your internal triggers?

And then there are four types of external triggers. They are people, places, situations or activities and things. So in this category, we need to identify the triggers that apply to you.

So your external triggers…..Who are the people? You need to be able to name them specifically? Which friends? Is it a spouse or significant other, family members, coworkers, bosses? And make sure you are specific, naming the exact friend, naming the exact family member, naming the co-workers or the bosses? We need to be able to identify those specific people.

And then places. These are places where you frequently used or drink bars or clubs, maybe certain friends, houses, concerts, school, work, neighborhoods or certain freeway exits.

Which of these places are a trigger for you?

And now this doesn’t mean that you won’t ever be able to be around these things again. It just means that you’re going to have to make some changes and you may have to stop engaging for a while.

Situations or activities could be parties or other social gatherings, holidays, special occasions, when you’re home alone, when you’re dining out, before or during a date, waking up in the morning, after school or work. Which of these situations or activities are a trigger for you? And are there any others that you would add to any of these lists?

It’s important that you create the list that works for you.

So things. These might be stashes of alcohol or drugs in the house. Or paraphernalia associated with drinking or using. Your favorite shot glass, wine glass, your bongs, rolling papers, pipes, other objects that are used as part of a ritual to get high. Please identify which of those are a trigger for you.

And then you have to take a look at some of the things that are around your house or in your possession, these things that you identify that could be triggers for you and you’ll need to have these things removed from your home. And you probably want to have somebody help you with that, a friend or family member or sponsor somebody that’s supportive of your recovery to help you to get rid of things that are in your environment. And these might include alcohol, pills, marijuana, any drugs at all that you’ve used, even if they’re not your preferred substance. A lot of people relapse using another drug that isn’t their preferred substance. And then once they’re intoxicated, they return to using their preferred substance.  Lighter, mirrors, ashtrays, pipes, rolling papers, bongs, needles, phone numbers of dealers or contacts you used to find drugs, you should delete these from your phone completely. And a medical marijuana card if you have one of those.

Do you have any other paraphernalia you need to let go of?

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The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.