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Relapse Triggers & How to Avoid Them

It is not uncommon for recovering addicts to have a slip at least once during their recovery journey. The definition of a relapse is a downward spiral into compulsive or addictive behavior, including the use of drugs or alcohol. It’s not a requirement for sobriety, but it can happen at any time during the recovery process. Surprisingly individuals with decades of continuous sobriety are just as subject to relapse as the person who is newly sober. 

While relapses are common, it’s not inevitable. Understanding the triggers that lead to a potential relapse, as well as having a plan of action in place to reduce triggers, is essential to long term recovery.  Not one person in recovery is immune to a relapse, which is why understanding triggers can help the addict avoid a relapse, or minimize the intensity of a relapse period. 

In order to understand relapse prevention, it’s helpful to understand the three stages of relapses according to Dr. Steven M. Melemis, MD, PhD and Terence Gorski:

Emotional Relapse – This is the first phase of relapse. During this particular stage, the recovering addict is not actually thinking about using drugs or alcohol. However, if the addict hasn’t learned how to deal with emotions in a healthy way, this could change in an instant. Some signs of emotional relapse include, but are not limited to, are bottling up emotions, not attending recovery support meetings, not taking responsibility for one’s own problems, not asking for help, and not practicing self care. 

Mental Relapse – This is the second stage of relapse.  If the recovering addict does not pay attention to the emotional signs of relapse, there will be a period of time where the addict actually thinks about using drugs or alcohol again. There may even be periods of romanticizing the relationship between drugs and alcohol, or minimizing the severity of the consequences due to drug or alcohol use. It’s important to remember, especially in early recovery, that occasional thoughts of using are normal, however as the addict becomes healthier, these thoughts typically lessen over time. When an addict enters the mental relapse stage they are actually considering making a choice to use, rather than just the fleeting thoughts here and there. Some signs of mental relapse include, but are not limited to, hanging out with old friends that are not in recovery, cravings or physical urges to want to use, minimizing the past consequences due to drug use, lying, planning a relapse or thinking of ways to control using next time. 

Physical Relapse – This is when the addict or alcoholic actually physically relapses into drug or alcohol use.  If the emotional and mental relapse symptoms are not addressed, the addict will soon find themselves picking up the drug or drink, one more time. 

In addition to knowing the stages of relapse, it’s important to understand the triggers leading up to a physical relapse, and some actionable steps to avoid an emotional, mental and physical relapse. 

Stress is the top trigger for relapse. Addicts must learn new ways to cope with stress otherwise they will return to the only way they know how to manage stress, which is picking up a substance to ease the anxiety, fear and worry. One way to prepare for these triggers is to continuously evaluate the stress you are under. Although you can’t eliminate stress entirely, you can avoid situations that cause extreme stress, and ask for help managing the unavoidable stress.

It’s important to learn positive ways to manage stress. Practicing mindfulness and increasing selfcare are two really great ways to manage stress. Understanding what causes you stress, and then asking for help from a therapist or counselor can help you prepare for potential stressful situations, and develop new coping skills to deal with stress.

Revisiting people or places that are connected to using or addictive behavior can be another strong trigger for relapse. There is a saying in recovery that goes “you have to change your playmates and playgrounds in order to stay sober”. This infers to let go of past people and places where drinking or doing drugs is present. 

In order to stop visiting people and places that are triggering, new routines and new friendships must be created. Filling up your time with new sober activities and new sober friends takes the place of wanting to revisit old stomping grounds and relationships that are not good for the addict. Making a plan ahead of time to engage in new activities and form new support systems will help avoid this particular relapse trigger.  

Times of celebration can trigger relapse. Positive occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays can trigger the desire to want to celebrate with a drink or other mind-altering substance. Avoid going into these celebrations without support from sober friends, and without having an exit strategy. Having a sober friend accompany these events and having your vehicle readily available to leave is a good idea.

A licensed therapist can help you put together a relapse prevention plan in times of celebration, as well as in times of stress. Ultimately it’s up to the addict to understand that celebration might be a trigger, and to either avoid the celebration all together, or to ask for support in attending these gatherings.

Strong emotional reactions can be a relapse trigger. Emotions are not bad or good, they just are.  Those who struggle with addiction issues have been practiced in dealing with strong emotions by numbing out with alcohol or drugs. When entering into recovery, there has to be a plan to handle strong emotional reactions to life’s circumstances. 

Life and life circumstances are evolving which may cause anxiety and worry.  Stress and uncertainty may trigger a strong emotional reaction which can be challenging to control. It’s critical to understand that strong emotions can be a trigger for relapse. Understanding your own emotional wellbeing, and having a support system in place that you can share your feelings with, is key to managing emotional reactions.   It’s important to find someone safe to process emotions with, like a licensed therapist or counselor, as well as learning how to face your own emotions without escaping into addiction.  

There are healthy ways of handling emotions such as talk therapy, journaling, meditation, or even praying to your own conception of a higher power. Good sleep, exercise and good eating habits can also contribute to being able to properly manage emotions. We have written an entire blog article here about ways to incorporate self care in recovery. Click here to check it out. 

Relapse can be prevented. It’s a matter of willingness to know your triggers, and find healthy ways of coping with them.  There are times where you won’t be able to adequately evaluate a situation that might trigger you, so it’s important to start practicing ways to manage your own wellbeing before being triggered.

It’s up to the addict to be responsible for managing their own triggers, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. At Collective Recovery we offer a comprehensive outpatient recovery program and sober living environments to guide the addict on the road to long term successful recovery.  If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please give us a call at 1-866-UTAH-HOPE or click here for our benefit review.