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Watch Out for These 5 Addiction Triggers

6 minute read

Getting sober is hard. Staying sober is sometimes harder. The good news is that millions of people are living in recovery, and you can too. If you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, paying attention to triggers can help you safeguard your sobriety, especially in early addiction recovery. Between 40-60% of people in recovery relapse. That doesn’t mean you’re destined for relapse; it just means you should prepare for triggers and challenges as best you can. As part of your relapse prevention plan, you should be able to identify triggers and have a plan when you encounter them.

Here are some important areas to pay attention to, especially when you’re new to recovery:

#1 HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired

You may have already heard the acronym, “HALT” in inpatient rehab or outpatient rehab. HALT stands for: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Basic needs like eating well or getting enough sleep can have a great impact on how you feel physically and mentally. In addiction recovery, you’re encouraged to “halt” and ask yourself if you’re experiencing any of those conditions. Feelings of unbalance can be internal triggers for addictive behaviors. It’s more difficult to remember healthy coping skills when you’re experiencing any of these deficits.

Am I Hungry?

Hunger can come in the form of an actual need for food or an emotional hunger. Check-in with your body and quiet your mind. Halt, and ask yourself if the hunger you’re feeling is tied to a need for food, or is it a void from stress, sadness, or loneliness? It’s sometimes easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. If you’re physically hungry, eat something healthy instead of turning to sugary or overprocessed foods that may provide a quick fix, but will make you feel worse in the long run. If you’re emotionally hungry, try these tactics:

  • Call a friend or sponsor
  • Journal
  • Meditate
  • Do yoga or stretch
  • Take a walk

Am I Angry?

Intense or uncomfortable emotions like anger can trigger drug and alcohol abuse in people with substance use disorders. This is why many drug rehabs include anger management as part of programming.

Anger is a natural emotion, but some people have complex issues around anger, usually based on the messages received about it as a child. This can make anger a loaded emotion you want to escape from. In the past, this escape may have come in the form of substance abuse. If you’re feeling triggered, halt and ask yourself if you’re experiencing anger or another uncomfortable emotion. Positive emotions can even be uncomfortable in early recovery. When you’ve been numbing feelings with drugs and alcohol, it takes time to relearn what to do with emotions. Healthy ways to deal with anger instead of abusing drugs include:

  • Exercise
  • Take a walk
  • Take a break and then express your anger effectively (therapy and anger management training can help with this)
  • Call your therapist, sponsor, or friend and talk through the situation
  • Use cognitive behavioral therapy approaches to identify, challenge, and reframe thoughts before they lead to unhealthy behaviors

Am I Lonely?

Recovery can feel lonely at times, and loneliness is a risk factor for addiction relapse. Sometimes sobriety means building a new friend group or changing relationships with family. You don’t have to be physically alone to experience loneliness. Feeling like you

don’t have anything in common or strong connections with the people in your life can also make you feel alone. If you’re the only one not drinking at a party or a family gathering, that can bring feelings of loneliness as well. Drugs and alcohol may feel like an old friend that can bring comfort.

A sober network of peers is a critical piece of recovery. If you’re feeling lonely and tempted to use drugs or alcohol, attend an Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery group; call your sponsor; or call a loved one.

Am I Tired?

Getting enough sleep is an important part of keeping your brain and body healthy. Lack of sleep can have many detrimental effects on your health, and it’s also a risk factor for relapse. Make sure you’re on a regular sleep schedule. Tiredness can also come in the form of mental exhaustion. Create some space in your mind with activities like meditation or yoga, or participating in anything that feels meditative to you, like playing or listening to music, knitting, creating art, or running.

#2 Old Friends Abusing Substances

It’s best to avoid as many external triggers as possible in early recovery, which includes your old friend group. Addiction changes the brain in ways that mean certain situations provide cues to drink or use drugs, activating the reward system so that it’s nearly impossible to refuse substances. Hanging out with the same people you used drugs and alcohol with is a test that you should not put your early sobriety up against.

#3 Places Tied to Drinking or Using Drugs

In the same way former friends can be relapse triggers, your brain links places to substance abuse as well. Just driving by an old haunt where you would use drugs or your regular bar can bring up a powerful urge to abuse substances. While it might be impossible to avoid all people and places associated with drug or alcohol abuse, it’s best to not seek out these things. Creating as much distance as possible between triggers you can control is important for people in recovery.

#4 Celebrations and Parties With Alcohol or Drugs

Preventing relapse may mean avoiding situations with any drug or alcohol use for a while. Many people in recovery reach a point where they feel more comfortable around substance use and don’t feel as triggered. It takes time to build the healthy coping skills needed to tolerate these situations for people recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. For some, this can take years.

Be patient with yourself. To be safe, avoid parties or gatherings with substance use until you develop healthy coping mechanisms, have many months of sobriety under your belt, and have a specific action plan in place for dealing with these types of triggers.

#5 High-Stress Situations

Stress is a natural part of life. There’s no way to avoid it, but trying to eliminate unnecessary sources of stress in early recovery can make coping with triggers easier. High-stress situations are different for everyone. For example, high-conflict relationships with loved ones or acquaintances can bring about stress for some people. Limit time spent with these people if avoiding them isn’t an option. You’ve just embarked on a big life change, so consider putting off other big life changes like moving, marriage, or starting a new career for a while so you can focus on staying sober.

Make sure you’re attending therapy appointments and taking any medications for underlying issues like anxiety disorders, which can exacerbate stress if not treated. Draw on your usual recovery resources like support groups and healthy coping strategies.

Return to Addiction Treatment if Necessary

Relapse is not a failure, it’s a chance to learn and move forward. If you or a loved one is struggling, we can help. Our addiction treatment centers provide evidence-based care with a strong focus on relapse prevention.

We help you address underlying reasons issues like trauma and co-occurring disorders that can fuel substance addictions. Getting to the root causes of your addiction can decrease the urge to cope with triggers through drugs and alcohol. We teach you healthy coping skills for everyday life and our aftercare services are comprehensive.

From the day you walk through our doors, you’re a part of our recovery community, filled with staff who care about your well-being and a network of alumni to lean on for a lifetime. Call today for a free, confidential phone consultation.


David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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