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Understanding How Relapse Happens, Relapse Triggers

Watch Out for These 10 Relapse Triggers

Choosing to follow a sobriety journey is a courageous and daunting task. There are many changes you have to make, and unfortunately, statistics indicate that 40–60 percent of people will experience some form of relapse. But it’s important to recognize that feeling overwhelmed sometimes is natural in life—it’s how you deal with it that matters most. Knowing how to manage stress and put what you’ve learned in rehab to good use helps you watch out for certain relapse triggers before they’re too much to handle.  

Understanding How Relapse Happens

Many people are surprised to learn there are three phases of relapse. According to a report from Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine:

  1. You might first notice emotional issues, such as suppressing feelings, mood swings, and avoiding family, friends, and support groups.
  2. Then, there’s a build-up to mental conflict. Here’s when you start to realize cravings and the desire to use drugs or alcohol.
  3. Finally, there’s a physical lapse—“the initial drink or drug use,” which often leads to a full relapse— “a return to uncontrolled using” by the journal’s definition. 

But a sudden triggering catalyst is dangerous, too. Many people who experience forms of trauma—such as complicated grief due to the loss of a loved one, PTSD, or a devastating accident—might be so overcome by a rush of emotional and mental stimulation that they can’t help but divert the pain through addictive behavior. 

Researchers also note that a lapse isn’t a minor event. “Clinical experience has shown that once an individual has had one drink or one drug use, it may quickly lead to a relapse of uncontrolled usage,” Yale’s journal report cautions.

Recognizing and addressing addiction triggers is an integral part of recovery. Whether it’s stress, certain environments, or specific people, identifying these triggers is a crucial step in learning how to effectively cope with and ultimately overcome them. 

10 Most Common Relapse Triggers

Addiction scientists continue to refine the definition of addiction triggers, but much of the research is based on subjective experience. For example, one 2020 study indicates that “usually, the emphasis for relapse prevention is focused on avoiding trigger stimuli by means of healthy habits [but] subjective elements play a central role, and are related to the complexity of personal relationships and self-assessment.” 

Researchers further indicate that it’s not enough to simply avoid triggers—for more healthy sobriety, it’s essential to understand them and develop better resilience when faced with them.  

Generally, here are some of the common triggers most people experience. Each one highlights the complex interplay between internal and external factors that can contribute to addiction relapse. 

  1. Stress. This takes many forms, and we can be consumed by it at any point when circumstances become too much to handle or we’re not taking care of ourselves properly. It’s all too easy to turn to addictive behaviors as a way to cope and self-soothe.
  2. Negative emotions. Sadness, anger, loneliness, and frustration may remind you of past experiences when substances seemed like an easy way to numb or escape these feelings.
  3. Social situations. Staying sober around other people is sometimes a powerful trigger for relapse. Peer pressure and social norms can make it difficult for individuals in recovery to resist temptation.
  4. Environmental cues. These triggers might involve visiting a place, neighborhood, or event where drug and alcohol use was strong, evoking memories and cravings associated with past addictive behavior.
  5. Celebrations and holidays. Here again, social pressure to participate in these activities combined with memories of past enjoyment might make it challenging to stay sober.
  6. Physical pain or discomfort. Managing acute or chronic pain in addiction recovery is often a challenge, especially if you once relied on prescription pain medications.
  7. Boredom. A lack of structure in your daily routine can create a sense of emptiness or restlessness, and some people may turn to addictive behaviors for stimulation or distraction.
  8. Overconfidence or complacency. Have you experienced pink cloud syndrome? Believing that everything in recovery will always be rosy or thinking you can handle small indulgences without consequences is usually the beginning of the relapse cycle.
  9. Positive emotions. While it might seem counterintuitive, even positive feelings such as happiness, excitement, or euphoria can trigger relapse. These emotions lower inhibitions and perhaps prompt the use of substances to elevate a good mood even higher.
  10. Traumatic events. As we mentioned above, these experiences are extremely destabilizing and trigger intense emotional distress and a desire to escape or numb the pain.

Remember, empowerment in recovery isn’t about being perfect or never experiencing setbacks. It’s about acknowledging the challenges and finding the strength within yourself to keep moving forward. By building resilience against addiction triggers, you can navigate the ups and downs of recovery with a greater sense of control and confidence.

Find the Sobriety Resources You Need at Great Oaks

The addiction recovery programs you’ll discover at Great Oaks Recovery Center outside of Houston, Texas, are designed not only to address rehabilitation and relapse prevention, but also expose you to various therapies, techniques, and thought processes that reinforce your sobriety choices. We understand life’s complexities and believe in your ability to navigate them healthfully. Whether you or a loved one recognizes that it’s time to return to rehab, or you’re embarking on a recovery journey for the first time, our board-certified medical team is ready to help.