Recovering from addiction means learning to cope with triggers to avoid relapse. Everyone experiences triggers after entering recovery, but veterans face unique challenges based on their time in the service. Fortunately, there are effective strategies for managing veteran triggers so you can stay committed to your recovery. 

Veterans and Their Addiction Risk

The prevalence of addiction in veteran populations can vary; however, research suggests that about 11% of veterans seeking treatment at the VA have a substance use disorder or addiction. Not every veteran who has an addiction seeks treatment, so prevalence could be even higher than reported.

Among male veterans, the prevalence of alcohol use disorder is 10.5%, compared to 4.8% for drug use disorder. In women veterans, the prevalence of alcohol use disorder is 4.8%, and the prevalence of drug use disorder is 2.4%. 

Veterans may be at risk of developing addiction because of stressors related to their time in the service. Drugs and alcohol can become a way of numbing or self-medicating physical and emotional pain.

Unique Triggers: Veteran PTSD and Mental Health

One unique addiction trigger that veterans face is PTSD symptoms. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about ⅓ of veterans who seek addiction treatment also have PTSD. 

So, a veteran may be triggered by PTSD symptoms. When sleep difficulties, intrusive memories, or painful emotions arise, substances can provide temporary relief.  A veteran may relapse because they think that substances will help them cope with symptoms.

Unfortunately, substance use only provides temporary relief, and over time, it’s likely to make mental health worse. This applies not only to PTSD symptoms but also to other conditions like depression.  

Research has also found a link between depression and substance use in veterans, so drug and alcohol use may be a way to self-medicate depression. As is the case with PTSD, substance use is likely to make depression worse over time. 

Time in the service also make veterans more likely to develop injuries, which may lead to addiction when they are treated with pain medications. Research shows that prescription opioids are commonly prescribed to veterans to help them manage chronic pain and migraines. 

Interestingly, veterans with PTSD or another mental health diagnosis are more likely to be prescribed an opioid pain medication. The problem is that these medications can be addictive, leading to misuse. 

Veterans coping with injuries and chronic pain may turn to substance use to numb physical pain. Those who have co-occurring mental health disorders are at increased risk of becoming addicted to opioid pain medications, which can happen even if a doctor prescribes these medications. 

Common Triggers: Shared Challenges in Recovery

Veterans can experience unique addiction triggers, such as PTSD symptoms and chronic pain, but they can also struggle with some common triggers that even non-veterans contend with during recovery. For example, stress, lack of social support, poor coping and drug cravings can all trigger a relapse. The good news is that you can learn strategies to help you deal with these triggers without relapsing. 

Strategies for Coping with Veteran-Specific Triggers

Given the overlap between PTSD and addiction in veterans, it’s important to learn strategies for coping with PTSD symptoms. Some helpful strategies for managing triggers related to PTSD include:

  • Talk to supportive friends and family members when you’re struggling,
  • Spend time engaging in hobbies you enjoy to boost your mood.
  • Engage in prayer or meditation.
  • Do relaxing activities, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga. 
  • Spend time outdoors.
  • Do gentle exercises, such as stretching or swimming. 

If you’re having triggers related to pain or injury, it’s important to find alternative pain management strategies, especially if you have struggled with opioid addiction. Talk with your doctor about managing pain without medication. Some strategies that may be useful include:

  • Massage
  • Mindfulness interventions
  • Occupational or physical therapy
  • Exercise interventions
  • Tai Chi
  • Yoga 

Using these strategies when you’re triggered by pain can help you to find relief without turning to substances. 

Tackling Common Triggers: Resilience in Recovery

Beyond the veteran-specific strategies noted above, some general relapse prevention strategies help build resilience in the face of stress. To cope with common triggers, remember the strategies below:

  • Attend self-help groups like AA or NA and seek out support from other members.
  • Take time to relax so you’re better equipped to handle stress. 
  • Avoid people, places, and things associated with your addiction. 
  • Be mindful of risky situations, such as things that upset you or trigger cravings. 
  • Ensure that you’re practicing self-care, which means eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. 

A Veteran’s Toolbox for Managing Triggers

In addition to using your healthy coping strategies, some tools can help you manage triggers. Some of the top choices for veterans include:

  • RESET Video Training: This online video training, designed specifically for veterans, can teach you how to manage intrusive thoughts related to PTSD. 
  • The Mindfulness Coach App: This app will teach you about the benefits of mindfulness, as well as how to practice it in your own life. The app is free and available to the public, and it will teach you how to manage emotional distress, which can be a trigger. 
  • The Insomnia Coach App: This free app provides tips for improving your sleep, and it allows you to track sleep to note your progress. If you’re struggling to get enough rest, this can help you to get better rest so you’re better equipped to handle triggers.
  • PTSD Coach Online: This webpage from the National Center for PTSD provides various tools to help you cope with stress. 
  • VetChange: This is a free online program that helps veterans to manage stress and set goals to cut back on drinking. 

Tools are Supplements, Not Substitutes for Treatment

Supportive tools and relapse prevention strategies are helpful, but they are not substitutes for treatment. Ideally, you should be engaged in a professional treatment program and use tools to complement professional interventions. These programs provide individual and group therapy services, where you can learn and strengthen relapse prevention skills. Seeking treatment also provides you with professional interventions to help you overcome symptoms of depression or PTSD, which can be relapse triggers. 

Explore Our Veteran-Centric Treatment Programs

If you’re a veteran in need of treatment for addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We can treat addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders like PTSD or depression. We offer a specialty FORTITUDE program for veterans, with exclusive support groups for veterans and first responders. Contact one of our Veteran Advocates today to get started with treatment.

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Veteran Recovery Is Our Mission

The Recovery Village is an industry-leading treatment provider for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. 

  • Experienced clinicians: Our clinicians are specially trained in trauma-informed care, military culture and treating veteran-specific addiction and mental health needs.
  • Dual diagnosis: We treat addiction and mental health disorders like PTSD, anxiety or depression simultaneously for a better recovery.  
  • EMDR: A revolutionary treatment available at several facilities, EMDR therapy alleviates mental pain and emotional recession from trauma, which can lead to better outcomes for your addiction.
  • FORTITUDE: Our specialty track for veterans and first responders at select facilities puts you in exclusive group therapy sessions with your peers. 

If you’re a veteran struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, our Veteran Advocates can help you navigate your VA health insurance and get you the help you need.

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Editor – Brennan Valeski
Brennan Valeski graduated from The University of Central Florida in 2020 with a Bachelor's in Entertainment Management. He has edited and been a content manager for websites and digital media. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Teeters, Jenni, et al. “Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges“>Substanc[…]nt challenges.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 2017. Accessed November 21, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans“>PTSD and[…]e in Veterans.” March 30, 2023. Accessed November 21, 2023. 

Menon, Jayakrishnan; Kandasamy, Arun. “Relapse prevention“>Relapse prevention.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, February 2018. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Coping with Traumatic Stress Reactions“>Coping w[…]ess Reactions.” March 30, 2023. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

Giannitrapani, Karleen, et al. “Veteran Experiences Seeking Non-pharmacologic Approaches for Pain“>Veteran […]ches for Pain.” Military Medicine, 2018. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

Melemis, Steven. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.”“>Relapse […] Recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015. Accessed November 22, 2023.  

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Coping With Unwanted Thoughts: RESET for Active-duty Soldiers“>Coping W[…]duty Soldiers.” June 7, 2023. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “VA Mobile Apps.“>“VA Mobile Apps.” August 25, 2022. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

National Center for PTSD. “PTSD Coach Online.“>PTSD Coach Online.” Accessed November 22, 2023. 

VetChange. “Take Control of Your Drinking.”“>Take Con[…] Drinking.” Accessed November 22, 2023.

Medical Disclaimer

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.