How to Handle Triggers and Prevent Relapse

When you live with addiction, going into rehab does not guarantee that you will stay sober.

In fact, 40%-60% of people who have lived through an addiction will go through the stages of relapse and find themselves back at the first stage of the addiction cycle. When you live with addiction, going into rehab is no guarantee of never relapsing or lasting sobriety.

We hear story after story from people who have experienced this. They share how they have checked themselves into rehab multiples times and openly admit to suffering from relapses.

They’re not alone in their struggle to stay sober, and neither are you. To help prevent a person from becoming one more statistic, it is important to know how triggers can lead to a relapse and what coping strategies are available to prevent a relapse.

Addiction is a Cycle

Addiction is fueled by impulse and compulsion. In turn, these two are the foundation of the addiction cycle.  The cycle consists of three stages:

  1. Addiction: Binging on a substance.
  2. Withdrawal: Receiving treatment and entering sobriety.
  3. Relapse: Anticipating and preoccupation about an addictive substance.

This cycle of addiction and how it is viewed by medical professionals has changed over the years. However, addiction hasn’t always been seen as a disorder.

Disorder vs. Dependence

In the 1950’s when the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, alcoholism and drug addiction were categorized as sociopathic personality disturbances, and symptoms were considered an underlying brain or personality disorder.

Today, with the publication of the 5th edition, addictions and their symptoms are no longer seen as a dependence or as the abuse of a substance—they are viewed as disorders.

The six most common substance use and addictive disorders are:

Each of these disorders has a potential for relapse. In many cases, the ability to relapse depends on several elements, such as:

  • Compulsion – Finding and using the substance.
  • Inability to Limit – Living in a state of lost control.
  • Change in Emotional State – Feeling depressed, irritable, or anxious.
  • Withdrawal – Experiencing psychological and physical challenges.

Each of these can be triggering to someone that is sober. And often, those triggers can lead to a relapse.

What is Relapse?

Something that has already happened and cannot be changed is an event. Something that is happening, and the conclusion is not yet known— it can be changed.

Relapse is often seen as an event outside of recovery—a physical action of drinking one beer, a glass of wine or smoking one joint. Relapse is not a single event. Relapse is a process that is connected to the recovery process.

The process of relapse can be can be separated into three stages:

  • Relapse through thoughts – “I have been sober for a while. My addiction is cured. I deserve just one drink.”
  • Relapse through behavior – “I do not know what to do with my thoughts about using again. It’s impacting my feelings, how I treat others, and myself.”
  • Relapse through controlled use – “I believe that with the help of a substance in a controlled manner, I can cope and handle with everyday problems.”

The Challenge with Relapse Through Controlled Use

When an addict enters the third stage of the relapse stage, they may begin using small quantities with the assumption that they can manage their substance use. Unknowingly, the third stage of relapse is where relapse shifts from a process to an event with an ending result and conclusion—bringing them back at the first stage of the addiction cycle, where they may begin binging due the impulsive and compulsive nature of addiction.

Types of Triggers

Triggers that can start or further the relapse process differ from person to person. However, there are several common triggers that can stem from emotions or your environment:

Emotional triggers

  • Stress.
  • Frustration.
  • Fear.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.

Environmental triggers

  • People that remind a person in sobriety of using.
  • Places that remind a person in sobriety of using.
  • Attending parties where people are socially drinking.
  • Medications, alcohol or other items.

5 Ways to Cope with Triggers

There are many ways to cope and handle triggers, such as:

1. Have a support system

Family and friends are here to help and see you succeed in staying sober. Honesty is important in sobriety and talking to your support system about how you feel can help them keep you accountable.

2. Attend meetings

Attending support groups can provide you with a place to discuss your triggers with people that have experienced similar feelings. If you have a sponsor, they may be able to help you sort through how the trigger is making you feel.

3. Distract yourself

Get moving and do something physical. Exercise can improve your emotional well-being, which can often reduce any triggering feelings you may be having. You can also replace the time you spent drunk or high with a new hobby or activity, which can turn your mind away from any triggering thoughts.

4. Remind yourself of negative consequences

If your addiction had any personal or legal repercussions, using again can provide additional negative consequences. Make a list of any personal or legal consequences of substance abuse that you could face and consider whether using again is worth facing them.

5. Self-talk

Remind yourself that you’re not alone in experiencing triggers and although it’s tough, you can avoid using. Encouraging yourself to stay sober can be a great motivator to avoid using.

Get Professional Help

Understanding triggers and how they impact the relapse process can help you avoid returning to addiction. If you find yourself near or in the middle of a relapse, reach out to our team to learn more about how our individualized treatment plans can help get you back on the road to sobriety –and provide you with the necessary tools to stay there.

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“New Dad A.J. McLean Suffers Sobriety Setback.” N.p., 21 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <>.

“NIDA – Publications – A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach: Treating Cocaine Addiction.” NIDA – Publications – A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach: Treating Cocaine Addiction. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <>.

“Substance Use Disorders.” Michelle.harrington. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <>.

“Treatment and Recovery.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2016. <>.

Coping Skills for Addiction
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