Written: September 2021
Reading Time: 7 Minutes

When recovering from alcohol or drug addiction, triggers can be a blessing and a curse. They can cause considerable discomfort and make someone feel like they are on the edge of a relapse. But they can also be harnessed and used to build resilience and strength.

Before we talk too much about how to manage triggers in recovery, let’s first understand what a trigger is. 


Triggers in Recovery 

Feeling “triggered” can mean different things to different people. Many people recovering from addiction have felt triggered at some point through their journey. Generally speaking, triggers are people, places, things or situations that make someone want to drink or use drugs. They spark the brain to remember what it was like the first time they used, and how their addictive substance or behaviour once provided joy, comfort or relief. 

Most people describe triggers as an overwhelming and often sudden desire to drink or use. They vary widely and we have listed some common ones here. 

List of substance abuse trigger examples

  1. Seeing an old dealer or “using buddy” in the street. 
  2. Walking past a bar, especially if there are people enjoying themselves inside. 
  3. Seeing drugs or alcohol. 
  4. Hearing people talk about drugs or alcohol, especially if they are glorifying it. 
  5. Receiving a text message from someone from their old life. 
  6. Sexual encounters, particularly if drugs or alcohol were a strong part of their sex life in recovery. 


How Triggers Work

Addiction is often said to be a cunning, baffling disease. Triggers are a great example of how that is true. Most people who have decided on a path of recovery have done so because addiction caused them great pain and discomfort. Yet somehow, when confronted with a certain trigger, the brain will tell the person in recovery “that’s a great idea”. If this isn’t the definition of baffling, then we don’t know what is. 

There’s a part of the human brain, the reptile brain, that holds onto that first feeling. It runs on auto pilot and reminds us of that first time in certain circumstances. Many believe that this reminder is what triggers are really all about. It takes willpower and rational thought to hear that message and discard it, to overcome the trigger and continue in recovery. 

Something that’s clear about triggers is they are often linked to emotional responses, too. When we feel scared, using drugs or alcohol may help to numb the fear. When we feel pain, drinking or using drugs will help to relieve it. When we feel sad, we believe partying will make us feel happy again. The brain’s response to these emotional triggers can often be more powerful than even seeing a drink or our drug of choice. It’s these triggers that are often the most dangerous. 


People, Places and Things

Many use the phrase “people, places and things” to describe different types of triggers in recovery. 

People Triggers

When it comes to thinking of people who trigger us, we will often list individuals or groups who we once drank, used or partied with. But it can be much more involved than that. Thinking about the people in our lives who have caused intense emotional responses can also be helpful. Who makes us angry? Who makes us anxious? 

Encounters with these people can be challenging. Sometimes our brains will convince us that if we “just have one drink” or “just have one line of coke”, it’ll make interacting with that person so much easier. These kinds of triggers can take us by surprise, but they don’t have to. We can learn to embrace our triggers. 

Place triggers

There’s no denying that many places are a lot easier to avoid than people, particularly if the people who trigger us are our bosses, our family members or our friends. But you’d be surprised how walking past a certain bar, or walking into a particular toilet cubicle, can immediately bring a person back to a point in time where life seemed to be better than ever. 

In recovery we start to understand which places we can avoid and which ones we can’t. But the key is to gradually build resilience so that we can walk past, or even enter, a place that triggers us, without the overwhelming desire to drink or use. It is possible to live with these triggers in recovery. 

Things or Situations 

Maybe a trigger isn’t any particular person or place. Maybe it’s something that happens to us. For example, getting sick. Many people who got sick during active addiction used alcohol or drugs to feel better. So getting sick in recovery can be a trigger to do those things again. Or maybe getting paid is a trigger. If payday was the day that a person bought their stash of alcohol or drugs for 20 years, then getting paid in recovery could trigger the same response. 

Only after we have been in recovery for a while do we start to understand the situations that trigger us. Whilst we can look to others and see common triggers, our triggers are personal to us, and they have to be learnt over time. 


What To Do When Triggered

Triggers are a natural part of recovery. Everyone has them and everyone deals with them differently. But it is possible to manage triggers and respond, rather than react, to them. 

When someone says “I feel triggered”, it’s usually a physiological response they are experiencing. Their heart rate increases, they become agitated or physically excited, they might even start to feel some of the things they would feel if they were using, like a dry mouth, or sweaty palms. 

Recognising the trigger and acknowledging that it’s occurred is the first step. Here are some suggested things to try when it happens.  

    1. Acknowledge the trigger. Use internal, or even external dialogue to recognise it for what it is. “Wow… seeing that person take a drink of alcohol has really triggered me. I suddenly want a drink.” 
    2. Get some distance. Step away from the person, place or situation that’s causing the trigger and follow the next few steps. 
    3. Play the tape forward. Bring your thinking back to the present and remember where the behaviour took you in the past. Make sure you still acknowledge the trigger. “OK… I want a drink because I saw that person drinking. It looks so fun when they do it. But I know that if I was to have a drink now, I would not stop at one. I would likely drink the whole bottle and end up blacking out. I can’t drink like normal people.” 
    4. Breath or meditate. Sometimes simply closing our eyes and taking a few deep breaths is enough to ease the trigger and restore our mind. 
    5. Call someone. Whether it’s your sponsor or a good friend in recovery, talking about the trigger and how it felt is important in getting to understand how your triggers work.
    6. Journal about it. We can easily forget about these triggers which limits our ability to learn from them. Writing down what triggers you can help you to manage it in the future. 


How Rehab Can Help

Dealing with triggers is key to a strong recovery. Rehab provides a great environment to start practicing this early. Whilst some of the obvious triggers are removed in rehab, for example there’s no drugs lying around and no one is going out clubbing on a Saturday night, there are often other emotional triggers that will present themselves. Rehab is the perfect place to start feeling these triggers and dealing with them in a healthy and life-changing way. 

A good rehab will embrace triggers. At Refocus we encourage our clients to talk openly about their triggers in one on one and group therapy. Our small therapeutic community with people at different stages of their recovery can help someone who’s experiencing triggers see their peers handle them in healthy ways. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about triggers and how Refocus can help, get in touch with us today. 

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