Addiction treatment is an effective and long-term means of addressing addiction and improving your health. While many of us believe we can stop using drugs or alcohol through sheer willpower alone, unfortunately, that’s not the case. Addiction is a chronic disease, and if you don’t learn how to deal with it, getting help will only be a temporary fix. 

You must address your triggers, which are likely to threaten your sobriety during and after treatment. However, that doesn’t mean relapse still may not occur, as it could be part of your journey. In this blog, we’ll discuss how you can identify relapse triggers and develop strategies that safeguard your sobriety in the long term. 

What Is a Relapse Trigger?

A relapse trigger is defined as a thought, event, or circumstance that creates emotions that cause compulsions to use alcohol or drugs. Triggers can range from environmental, such as a favorite bar you drive past after work, to emotional. For example, if you feel anxious or depressed, you’ll seek out drugs or alcohol to satisfy your cravings. Relapse triggers cause a chain reaction that eventually causes a full-blown relapse. You can respond to your triggers with effective coping mechanisms to avoid that. Unfortunately, addiction treatment isn’t a magic wand that cures your problems – they still exist; you’ll just know how to manage them better. 

Many people view relapse as a momentary lapse in judgment that destroys your sobriety. However, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Relapse occurs well before you take drugs or drink alcohol. It could be a change of habits you developed while in treatment and working the program or remembering the good times with substances rather than the negative. Relapse can be stopped before it happens, but treatment shouldn’t be viewed as a failure if it does. Relapse occurs in 40 percent to 60 percent of cases, which is on par with other conditions like asthma or hypertension. Relapse is often part of the recovery process. It’s how you come back from it that matters.

If you stop following your treatment plan, you could also experience a relapse. However, again, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that treatment was a failure, but it means you must reevaluate your relapse prevention plan and come up with a new path for safeguarding against triggers that cause future relapses. 

What Are the Most Common Relapse Triggers?


Addiction used to be regarded as a test of one’s willpower. However, today, scientists have put those theories to rest and determined it’s a disease that affects the reward center, a part of the brain that encourages you to repeat life-sustaining actions. Addiction leads your brain into treating drugs or alcohol as something that is vital for life, such as food or water, and these foreign substances manipulate serotonin and dopamine, which are tied to reward. 

When you experience overwhelming negative emotions, your brain will automatically default to when you were using drugs and remember how they caused the release of those “feel-good” chemicals, leading you to experience cravings. This is why adverse emotions cause drug cravings. The most common triggers are tied to the following emotions:

  • Stress: Stress is an incredibly common relapse trigger. What makes this even more challenging to navigate is that stress occurs daily. If your dog is barking and wakes you up early, you’ll likely feel some stress. Perhaps your boss is critical of your work, leading to even more stress. It’s no wonder that someone might grab a drink after work, but you must find healthy ways to cope with your stress. It’s an essential part of relapse prevention and will improve the quality of your life.
  • Mental Health Problems: Unfortunately, mental health issues are widespread throughout the United States. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 52.9 million adults in the United States, equating to one in five people, suffer from mental illness. Anxiety, depression, and other common mental health problems can trigger a person and stir up cravings, especially if not addressed.
  • Adverse Emotions: Triggers often arise due to specific situations that cause adverse emotions. For example, if addiction causes you to get divorced, coming home to an empty house can cause you to feel sad and lonely, thus triggering a craving. The quote “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” is another example of how boredom can cause you to get in trouble or trigger drug or alcohol cravings. Emotions are often difficult to avoid, so having a plan is vital.
  • People or Places: Places where you used to hang out and use drugs or alcohol could trigger you to want to use again. As was mentioned above, it could be as simple as driving past your old bar after work. It might remind you of your old routine of leaving work, stopping at the bar, then going home. Old friends could have that effect. If you run into an old drinking buddy at the store, they might bring up old stories about when you drank together, causing you to reminisce and trigger a craving. 
  • Drugs or Paraphernalia: It’s common to hear about people who see drugs or paraphernalia and get hit with cravings. If you’re recovering from alcohol, seeing a commercial on TV or a billboard on the side of the road can trigger you. If you’re a former heroin addict, seeing the drug on TV or in a movie could also cause you to want to get high. 

The Stages of Relapse

As mentioned earlier, relapse isn’t something that occurs in an instant. It’s not a brief, single occurrence but rather something that happens in stages. These include emotional relapse, physical relapse, and mental relapse. Addiction recovery is an extensive process that requires patience, dedication, and help. 

One of the primary issues with relapse is that when a person falls back into drugs or alcohol, they often use the same dose they took during active addiction. Why is this a problem? If the individual is no longer tolerant of the substance, they could overdose and suffer permanent damage or death. 

For that reason, knowing the stages of relapse can prevent it from occurring and save a life. Relapse is a return to substance use. Many people will relapse, some more than once, and knowing the different stages is important. The more aware you become, the greater the odds of remaining abstinent. 

Emotional Relapse

During an emotional relapse, you may not be thinking about using drugs or alcohol, but it could be leading you to a point where relapsing becomes a reality. Pay attention to mood swings if you’re not enjoying the sober life, intolerance, and isolating yourself socially. These could all be signs you are moving into the next phase of relapse. 

Mental Relapse

Someone who won’t acknowledge the symptoms of an emotional relapse can lead to a mental relapse, which is characterized by an inner battle. One part of you wants to return to substances, while the other wants to remain sober. You might fantasize about using and then make excuses that this time will be different. As it deepens, you might experience cravings or plan your relapse. You can use relaxation techniques or go for a walk to clear your head. Give yourself at least 30 minutes before making a decision. 

Physical Relapse

If you fail to take the appropriate measures after an emotional or mental relapse, a physical relapse is imminent. However, the question that remains is will you seek help after this slip-up or enter back into active addiction?

How to Cope With Relapse Triggers

Different triggers call for different strategies. There isn’t a foolproof plan for everything, so you’ll have to work with a therapist to find approaches that work for you. Here are solutions that can help with cravings and triggers:

  • Avoid places, people, or anything responsible for triggering cravings. While avoidance isn’t always possible, do your best to stay away.
  • Eat well! A balanced diet with fresh foods rich in protein and complex carbs can help you better manage your cravings.
  • Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day. It’ll give you a natural endorphin and dopamine boost.
  • Attend support group meetings.
  • Meditate or try breathing exercises if you have a craving.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of your life, not the negative.
  • Stay busy with healthy activities – go out with friends, go bowling, go on a hike, or do anything to keep your mind off drugs or alcohol.
  • Watch a funny movie or comedy that helps disengage. Laughter is great medicine.
  • Listening to relaxing music.
  • Make affirmative statements, such as, “This will pass – I can do this.”
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