“When I first started, I didn’t consider it ‘using,’” says Stella Warren, a 30-year-old in recovery. “It was just something my friends and I did so we could experience what everyone in school was talking about.
“Then it started being something to do to pass the time, and then it was something to do instead of going to class. Before I knew it, it was something I needed to do to exist.”
Like many addicts, Stella’s experience with addiction started out as a casual habit. As she continued to use, she met others who shared her addiction, and her whole life began to revolve around her abuse.
When Stella began her recovery process, “it felt like everywhere I looked, everywhere I went, almost everyone I knew was making me feel like using again,” she shares. This is what experts often refer to as triggers. Triggers vary for every single individual. For some, triggers are places – bars you used to frequent, backyards or alleys where you used to use, even the car you drive. For others, triggers are people, those you used to use with or those with whom you have a conflict. For other addicts, it’s situational or emotional – sometimes, the stress of performing at work or at school can drive them to want to use again.
Regardless of what your triggers are and how often they come up for you, the best thing to do is to be able to identify them before you’re gravely affected by them. Expecting that you’ll have triggers is also good practice; planning for how you’re going to overcome them is even better.
How to identify triggers for relapse
Experts say that triggers fall into a few categories: emotional, mental and environmental. Some triggers are easily overlooked. Stress cues that are linked somehow to your experience of substance abuse can also trigger you - perhaps you started using to escape the stress of seeing a family member who used to abuse you, and now, in recovery, when you see that family member, you feel the pull of your addiction trying to bring you back.
The National Institute of Health has also put together a list of the most common types of triggers. Do you recognize any of these?
- Exposure to your old drug of choice
- Seeing others using
- Seeing people, places and things you associate with using, like old friends you used with, bars you used to hang out in, or even alone time
- Negative emotions like stress, tiredness, loneliness or frustration
- Positive emotions like excitement, relief, elation or exhilaration
- Negative physical feelings, including feeling ill, tense, or worn down
Physical triggers for relapse
HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired is an acronym often used by mental health professionals to describe a collection of negative feelings that may cause relapse. If you can be aware of any of these symptoms and overcome them right away, you can prevent yourself from slipping into negative behavior. Although hunger is a physical feeling, it will certainly cause a disruption emotionally or psychologically. So if you find you are frequently hungry, keep a snack close by or call on the services of a nutritionist to make sure you’re eating healthy, balanced meals throughout the day. If your energy is low, don’t let yourself get even more tired. Try to get more sleep at night, or if you can take a short, 20-minute nap during the day, take it. Even if you just let yourself rest for a few minutes in between daily duties, you’re doing yourself a favor by not letting yourself get too exhausted.
If you are feeling physically unwell, and are experiencing stomach tightness, fatigue, general aches and pains, shakiness or cold sweats, these may be triggers as well. If mindfulness, relaxation or other natural techniques aren’t enough to help you combat these physical ailments, consider seeking medical advice for some medications that may assist in disrupting cravings and triggers. An important note, though, is to ensure you are being monitored carefully while on medication, and that you are continuing to use a non-medication strategy as part of your full treatment plan.
Earlier we mentioned HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired). Negative emotions – like anger or loneliness - can often lead people into relapse, so it’s best to try not to stay sad, angry, or lonely. Discuss with your therapist some tools or methods that can assist you in coping with your bad emotions. You probably used drugs to deal with those emotions in the past, so take this opportunity to learn some new skills to handle them.
Being over-confident is another possible trigger. If you think, suddenly, that you’re cured forever and no longer have to attend meetings or be diligent in following your recovery plan, you’re at risk for relapse. You can certainly feel confident about how far you’ve come, but take care to stay humble and aware of your challenges, and the fact that you will always need to pay attention to your triggers and warning signs.
For many, the most dangerous trigger is glamorizing past drug use, which often leads to the person in recovery going back to people, places and things that remind them of that old lifestyle. If you find yourself reminiscing fondly of your addictive behavior, sound the bell and head right to your therapist’s office or get on the phone with your sponsor. Reminiscing is a step toward allowing your addiction back into power. If you find yourself planning on how to get the drug, fantasizing about how you’ll feel, the places you’ll go and the people you’ll see again, don’t hesitate to seek the advice of a mentor, a loved one or friend who will help prevent you from acting on your craving and stop the trigger dead in its tracks.
If or when you find yourself thinking about past drug use, challenge your thoughts. Don’t focus on how good the activity felt – consider the consequences of that behavior. When you have a set of strategies or a solid plan for managing your triggers, you should successfully avoid relapse.
If you need help spotting your triggers, visit www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.