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How to Recognize Internal vs External Relapse Triggers

It’s important to recognize relapse triggers as you recover from addiction. It’s normal to experience strong cravings for drugs and alcohol. These desires often come from certain triggers, such as the people you surround yourself with and the feelings you experience.

However, not all triggers are the same. Some come from external sources, while others come from internal sources. By recognizing your triggers and where they are coming from, you can better manage them and prevent a potential relapse. 

Let’s learn more about relapse triggers, the differences between internal and external triggers, and strategies for coping. 

What are Relapse Triggers

A relapse trigger is a situation—environmental, emotional, social—that drags up memories of past drug or alcohol use. Triggers do not necessarily lead to relapse, but they do make it harder to resist substances because of the cravings they produce. This is why it’s so important to recognize your triggers and have healthy ways to cope. 

Addiction is a chronic brain disease with high relapse rates, though they are similar to other chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Using drugs or alcohol over a long period builds associations between your daily routine and your experiences. When you quit using substances, the disease doesn’t just go away. Your brain is still healing, but certain cues can activate cravings. 

Over time, triggers should decrease, but they never go away for good. There may be times in your life when triggers are more powerful than others, but you will learn how to better manage them. 

External Relapse Triggers 

External relapse triggers come from the “outside,” meaning people, places and situations. When you encounter these factors, they can cause you to crave drugs or alcohol. The best way to avoid these triggers is by creating a structured routine that keeps you busy without feeling stressed. A healthy routine includes a strong support system, a sober living environment, and healthy activities. 

Here are some common examples of external relapse triggers: 

  • People. Being around people who use drugs or alcohol can be a powerful trigger for returning to use. If your friends pressure you into using, it’s even more difficult to abstain. 
  • Places. Going to places where you used to engage in substance use can bring back memories, causing you to fantasize about drugs or alcohol.
  • Social events. Choose the events you attend wisely, as it’s not uncommon for alcohol to be a main event at parties, celebrations and other events.
  • Stressful situations. Stress is inevitable, but try to avoid high-stress situations when you can, such as family conflict or work-related stress.
  • Sensory cues. Things that stimulate your senses—seeing drug paraphernalia or smelling certain odors—can also be triggers. Sensory cues can be especially difficult to manage, because they often come out of nowhere. 

Internal Relapse Triggers 

Internal relapse triggers get less attention than external factors, but they can be just as powerful. These triggers are the thoughts and feelings you have that can cause a desire to return to use. While negative feelings are known to be triggers, it’s important to know that positive feelings can be as well. When you want to celebrate or have fun, you may be tempted to get high or drink. 

Below are some common types of internal relapse triggers: 

  • Stress. High levels of stress can trigger the desire to use drugs or alcohol to cope with the discomfort. Stress can also trigger unhealthy behaviors, like nail biting.
  • Anxiety. Like stress, experiencing high levels of anxiety can cause you to turn to substances to ease your worries. Anxiety can also trigger behaviors like overeating or excessive exercise. 
  • Depression. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness can cause you to find solace in self-destructive behaviors like substance use or self-harm. 
  • Boredom. Having too much time on your hands is a risk for relapse. You may start overthinking and fantasizing about drug or alcohol use to fill your time.
  • Loneliness. Loneliness can trigger the desire to be with others, which can cause you to hang with old friends or engage in risky situations. 
  • Negative self-talk. When you criticize yourself, you wear away at your self-esteem and trigger emotional distress. 
  • Physical discomfort. Uncomfortable physical sensations like pain, nausea or fatigue can lead you towards substances that provide relief, such as painkillers. 

Coping Strategies for Relapse Triggers 

One of the best ways to avoid triggers is by recognizing what they are. When you can clearly define what drives the desire to use drugs or alcohol, you can protect yourself from them. This may involve staying away from certain people and places, attending extra meetings or participating in an outpatient program. 

Of course, you can’t plan for all triggers. Life goes on, and you will eventually find yourself in the presence of an external trigger, plus you have internal triggers. To help you cope, here are some effective strategies. 

  • Explore therapy. Individual, group or family therapy can help you understand the root cause of your substance use. Make sure you have the help you need. 
  • Develop coping strategies. There are many different coping strategies to use to manage stress and triggers, such as yoga, meditation, exercise, deep breathing and cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Build a supportive network. Surround yourself with people who support your recovery. You may also benefit from joining support groups or keeping in touch with alumni from your treatment program. 
  • Engage in healthy activities. To fill your time, you’ll need to find new activities. Plus, engaging in activities can help you meet others. Consider volunteering, exercise, hobbies or educational classes. 
  • Create a plan. Create a relapse prevention plan that details how you will respond to triggers, including strategies for avoiding high-risk situations and what to do if you find yourself in them.
  • Prioritize self-care. You are responsible for taking care of your needs. Make self-care a priority by eating healthy, exercising every day, and getting enough sleep. 
  • Remove or minimize triggers. Find ways to remove or minimize triggers, such as by avoiding certain people and places and changing your routine. 

Getting Help for Addiction in Agoura Hills, CA 

Awakenings Treatment Center is a holistic recovery center that teaches clients how to develop lifelong skills to help them maintain sobriety. We realize that triggers play a significant role in the recovery process, but they do not have to sabotage your progress. Once you understand how to recognize your relapse triggers, there are ways to minimize and cope with them. To learn more about our outpatient programs, contact our admissions department today.