Tips to Prevent Relapse

Identifying External and Internal Triggers Related to Addiction

In early recovery or sobriety, it is important to identify external and internal triggers that may lead to relapse. Relapse is a return to prior behaviors after a period of remission. For example, a relapse is when a person returns to alcohol use after a period without alcohol use. 

Relapse and the Recovery Journey

Relapse can happen at any point in recovery and can be a normal part of the recovery process. It is helpful to identify one’s triggers, as triggers typically lead to thoughts of substance use.  These thoughts about a substance can lead to a craving for that substance, such as alcohol or another drug, and a craving can lead to a relapse. Once you identify the triggers, you can manage them in order to avoid relapse.

Addiction and relapse

External triggers tend to be people, places, and things that a person associates with past substance use. 

  • People: It may be the dealer who you contacted for drugs or the people with who you may have used drugs at that time in your life.
  • Places: It may be the part of town where you used or bought drugs or your local bar. Payday may be a triggering time of the week. All the money earned during that pay period may have previously been spent on drugs.
  • Things: It may be seeing the drug itself, paraphernalia used to inject or snort the drug, or even music that you listened to when using the drug or in spending time obtaining the drug. Music is also an example of a sensory trigger. These triggers are tied to the senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and/or smell.  

Internal triggers are certain feelings or emotions that can trigger the brain to want to engage in substance use. These emotions or feelings may be linked to times that a person used a drug or the moments before or after drug use.

When a person becomes anxious or depressed, they may turn to a substance to manage or reduce this emotion. When a person is feeling happy or having a good time in a social setting, they may want to celebrate by using a substance. Being aware of one’s emotions and the emotions tied to past substance use is integral to the recovery process.  

As mentioned above, once the triggers are identified they can be managed by:  

  1. Avoiding triggers: For example, turning down the invite to the party where you know there will be alcohol or other drugs.  
  2. Interrupting triggers: Some triggers, such as emotions cannot be avoided, therefore finding other coping strategies can be helpful. Distress Tolerance skills, as used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), like the ACCEPTS model can be utilized to manage difficult emotions. One such skill is by engaging in activities that require one’s full concentration like reading a book.  
  3. Talking about triggers: Talking about triggers can reduce the amount of power that they have over a person, whether a person talks to their sponsor through a 12-Step Support Group or to a counselor.  


About Sarah Chun

Sarah is a Resident in Counseling providing counseling services through our Alexandria location. She completed her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a Certificate in Addictions Studies from Immaculata University. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Music: Vocal Performance from American University in Washington, D.C.

Sarah is a National Certified Counselor and a member of the American Counseling Association. Sarah is pursuing her License in Professional Counseling (LPC) for the state of Virginia and is working towards a certification in TF-CBT. To learn more about Sarah, click HERE

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