Relapse isn’t a sign of failed recovery. Instead, for many people, it’s actually part of the recovery process. Relapsing often indicates the need for additional addiction treatment, or the need to receive another treatment type. In fact, it’s estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of recovering addicts will experience a relapse at one point in time. Moreover, these rates are actually on par with those of other common, chronic illnesses such as asthma and hypertension.
Relapse is always the result of internal or external triggers. Not surprisingly, stress is a major risk factor for relapse. Overwhelming problems, challenging circumstances, relationships, events, and even unexpected life changes can put a recovering addict at risk. Fortunately, stress and other risk factors can be carefully managed so that they don’t undermine your efforts to get well. Understanding what relapse triggers are, and learning how to overcome them is an incredibly important part of keeping your recovery on track.
What Are Relapse Triggers?
Relapse triggers can be anything that reminds you of your time spent abusing substances, and that causes cravings to arise. Relapse triggers can be social, environmental, physical, mental, or emotional. Sights, sounds, interactions, and even certain smells can trigger cravings. The good news is that with a solid plan, all relapse triggers can be confronted without using.
Avoidance is one strategy for dealing with relapse triggers. If you’re careful, there are many unnecessary risks that you can steer clear of. This can be as simple as choosing the right relationships and finding the right environments to spend time in. Other triggers will require you to leverage healthy coping techniques. For instance, rather than responding to high levels of stress by drinking or using drugs, you might try deep breathing, meditation, or even talking with an understanding friend.
7 Common Relapse Triggers
Even something as simple as walking past an old bar or hearing a favorite party tune can make you look longingly back on past substance use. After spending a fair amount of time in recovery, it’s often easy for people to forget just how uncomfortable, unhealthy, and unhappy they truly were before substance abuse treatment. The same habits that brought you to your personal “rock bottom” can be easily romanticized when the right triggers are present. Among the most common relapse triggers are these seven:
- People, places, and things
- Negative or challenging emotions
- Being around your drug of choice
- Becoming too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired
- Physical and mental illness
Taking the time to determine which risk factors are most likely to affect your life is the first step in crafting a relapse prevention plan.
For every relapse trigger that you might encounter, you should have several strategies for overcoming it. Luckily, avoiding relapse and dealing with individual relapse triggers typically gets easier as time gets on. Although general relapse rates are high, they become lower as people progress through the various stages of drug addiction recovery. For instance, some studies suggest that approximately 21 percent of recovering addicts relapse in their second year of recovery, but just over nine percent relapse during years three, four, or five. For those who’ve completed five full years of addiction recovery, relapse rates are estimated to be as low as seven percent.
People, Places, and Things
Spending time with enabling family members, passing familiar haunts, or even stumbling across a piece of clothing that you once wore during your old partying days could make you look back on bad habits fondly. Fortunately, you’ll often have the ability to control how often you encounter certain people, places, or things, and how long you’ll spend time with them. In recovery, it’s important to set firm boundaries in your relationships and in your actions. This way, you’re never exposing yourself to unnecessary risks. It’s okay to separate yourself from family members, friends, groups, and activities that make you feel uncomfortable or out of control.
Negative or Challenging Emotions
Life is guaranteed to throw a few challenges your way. Fortunately, the time that you spend in rehab will prepare you for the unexpected by teaching you better coping skills. Whether you experience job loss, go through a difficult break-up, or get hit by an overwhelming expense, you’ll have the skills and tools that are necessary for successfully dealing with the resulting frustration, stress, sadness, or sense of loss. When emotions prove too difficult to deal with on your own, you can always reach out to a sober sponsor or accountability partner, talk about your feelings in your next sober meeting or counseling session, or seek guidance from a support group.
Overconfidence is a common stumbling block in addiction recovery. Many people finish treatment under the mistaken impression that their addictions have been “cured”. In reality, substance use disorder is a complex, lifelong illness that will always need to be diligently managed.
If you’re overconfident in your recovery, you may believe that you’re strong enough to face common temptations and triggers head-on, rather than practicing avoidance as much as you can. This could cause you to hang around people who actively use drugs, go to places where alcohol or drugs are present, or make other decisions that greatly increase your risk of relapse.
Seeing or Being Around Your Drug of Choice
There may come a time when even seeing your drug of choice will make you feel a strong sense of disgust, or have feelings of pity for those who are still using it. However, this isn’t something that you want to test. Even years after quitting drugs or alcohol, many people report feeling tempted after seeing their substances of choice firsthand. It’s always best to put as much distance between you and your substance of choice as you possibly can.
Times of Celebration
It’s okay to celebrate life events with friends and family members while in recovery, but it’s also important to set your limits. Choose environments that aren’t filled with drugs or alcohol, and where everyone isn’t encouraging you to join in. Have an excuse ready if you need to leave a party for the sake of your own well-being. Always travel with a group of friends who value and understand your recovery, and who are committed to helping you stay on track.
H.A.L.T. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired)
Insufficient self-care can set the stage for several common relapse triggers:
- Anger and frustration
- Loneliness and isolation
- Extreme fatigue
To keep things easy, addiction counselors often share the acronym H.A.L.T. Each of the conditions that this acronym represents can trigger the desire to engage in old, harmful behaviors. If you’re too tired or too hungry, you might be tempted to use a stimulant to give yourself a quick boost. More importantly, you’ll likely have far less impulse control.
If you’re lonely, you might daydream about wallowing in your sorrows over a strong drink. Anger can make recovering addicts reach out for substances that have a calming effect. To avoid these things, remember to eat regularly and well, get an adequate amount of sleep on a nightly basis, and maintain several meaningful relationships. You should also have solid stress management and de-escalation plan for times when you feel like losing your cool. Slowly counting backward from ten, deep breathing, or simply removing yourself from a triggering environment are all great ways to bring your emotions back under control and keep them that way.
Mental or Physical Illness
Physical and emotional pain are powerful relapse triggers. The best way to avoid these is to receive regular medical care and to diligently care for yourself. If you believe that you have a co-occurring disorder such as:
- Major depressive disorder
- General anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Panic disorder
- Bipolar disorder
or any other undiagnosed or untreated mental health issue, consider enrolling in dual diagnosis addiction treatment. This is important to do even if you’ve already completed a formal rehab program. Until underlying mental health issues are properly identified and managed, recovering addicts will always have an elevated risk of relapsing. The discomfort that these conditions cause often makes people turn to drugs or alcohol for relief.
This is also true for chronic neck pain, back pain, or any other physical injury or illness. If you cannot safely manage your pain without drinking alcohol, using illicit substances, or misusing prescription drugs, seek help. Proper pain management is key for ensuring that recurring discomfort isn’t a constant trigger.
If you want to find out more about addiction recovery or get help avoiding common relapse triggers, get in touch with us today. Our counselors are always standing by and can help you learn more about our available programs.