Most Common Triggers For Relapse and How to Avoid Them

30 Apr Most Common Triggers For Relapse and How to Avoid Them

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If you have successfully completed detoxification and rehab for substance abuse, then you should be proud of yourself for making it this far. You have taken the first steps down the road to recovery in order to reclaim your life; however, it is just the first hurdle in a lifelong race. Once you leave the safety of your rehab facility, you will have to face all of the internal and external forces that may have tempted you to abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place.

Sadly, according to a 2014 JAMA study, 40% to 60% of individuals who receive substance abuse treatment for addiction will relapse within a year. This figure is not meant to dissuade or discourage you, but to prepare you for the difficult road ahead. If you want to avoid becoming just another statistic, it is critical that you are vigilant in your recovery process and aftercare programs. An important component of this is understanding common triggers and stressors that tend to lead to relapse. Below, we will discuss common triggers of relapse, the causes, and strategies you can employ to stay clean and sober.

What Causes Relapse?

If you consider relapse to be a singular event, as in “she had a relapse,” this is a critical misunderstanding of what relapse is. Relapse is a process that is similar to a volcanic event—a series of events, triggers, or stressors cause pressure to gradually build up over days, weeks, or months until the final eruption takes place.

Preventing a drug relapse requires understanding the three key stages involved and remembering that it is a process that could take years to reach the tipping point. The three phases of relapse are:

  1. Emotional relapse
  2. Mental relapse
  3. Physical relapse

Emotional Relapse

Our lives inevitably consist of sequences of ups and downs, highs and lows. Part of the human condition involves experiencing a range of dual-sided emotions such as love and heartbreak, joy and sadness, or laughter and sorrow. The measure of any man or woman is how they weather the inevitable storms of life. Unfortunately, many people reach an emotional state where their stress, emotional state, loneliness, or heartache causes them to abuse substances as a form of self-medication or pain alleviation. While this may make them feel better in the short run, it is but a temporary salve that often turns to alcohol or drug abuse.

During emotional relapse, you’re not actively considering breaking your sobriety; however, your emotional states and actions are triggering you and leading you down a path that could very well end with a return to substance abuse. Those in recovery typically need to relearn how to recognize and handle emotional states that might cause them to return to drugs or alcohol. When it comes to emotional relapse, the common warning signs are also symptoms of post-acute withdrawal, which you should be more than familiar with. Common emotional relapse triggers may include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Avoiding meetings
  • Bad eating habits
  • Bad sleeping habits
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Discontentment
  • Intolerance
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Not seeking help
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Restlessness
  • Social isolation

Emotional Relapse Prevention Plan & Measures

While it is normal to feel some of these emotions, how you handle them is what matters. It is easy to remain unaware of emotions or feelings and to simply act. Such reactionary measures, however, are a surefire recipe for relapse.

In the early stages, there are two main actions you need to take:

  • Recognize the emotional relapse triggers – If you wish to pull back from an impending relapse, learning to track your emotions and keep them in check with coping mechanisms allows you to uproot seeds that might otherwise have grown into a relapse over time. By recognizing that your emotions are getting out of control, or that your sleeping or eating habits are faltering, you can reorient and make course adjustments.
  • Practice self-care – Taking good care of yourself is one of the simplest ways to readjust your emotional states. Escapism through drugs and alcohol is a result of not dealing with pent-up emotions in a healthy manner. Eating poorly, sleeping at odd hours, or not exercising tends to compound the exhaustion and emotional strain you might be feeling. Being open and honest not only with yourself but with your family, friends, and group can help you confront bad habits or let go of things you might be holding on to.

Mental Relapse

Left unchecked, emotional relapse will eventually evolve into mental relapse. At this stage, a person feels a warring ambivalence about using drugs or alcohol. An internal battle or mental debate goes on in which a part of you wants to use, while the other vehemently opposes such an action.

If this internal conflict is allowed to continue, your daily triggers will weaken your mental fortitude over time; the foundations of the walls that you’ve worked so hard to build up will become vulnerable and break. In such a susceptible state, if you actively begin to think about using, you need to act immediately, or those walls will come tumbling down.

Triggers for mental relapse include:

  • Changing your attitude about the importance of your support group
  • Glamorizing your past substance use
  • Engaging in risky behavior
  • Fantasizing about using again
  • Hanging out with friends that you once used with
  • Going to places that you once used
  • Actively planning to use again

Coping mechanisms for mental relapse triggers include:

  • Play the situation out – If you reach the point where you think about reengaging in substance use, play the situation out to its logical conclusion and not just the initial high. Consider the disappointment you’ll feel after. Think about the urges you’ll feel to use again. Remember all the relationships that could be ruined. Remind yourself of all the steps you’ve had to take to reach this far and how a slip would take you back to square one. By actively thinking about the various repercussions, the thought of using will be less appealing.    
  • Share your struggles – Tell your loved one, your sponsor, or someone close to you that you are struggling. Once you share those feelings and expose some of your internal darkness to the light, quite often those urges will fade away, or at least grow weaker. Enlisting others to encourage you and hold you accountable helps you remember that there are others you do not want to let down.  
  • Do not wallow – Instead of daydreaming, get up and do something. Distract yourself and wait for at least 30 minutes. Exercise, go on a walk, practice yoga or meditation, pray, work on a hobby, talk to a friend. Typically, cravings will stop within a half hour, especially if you keep yourself busy.  

Physical Relapse

The final stage of relapse is the physical action of actively pursuing a relapse. This may involve driving to the liquor store or your dealer’s house with the plan to engage in substance abuse. If you reach this point and slip up, it is crucial that you do not let it define you.

A slip does not have to be a tumble back into addiction. You should have a relapse plan in place that lists out what you will do in case you screw up. Do not buy into the shame; instead, act immediately to correct your path. Call your loved one or sponsor and tell them what happened, what you were feeling, and how it occurred.  Take the time to recall the emotional and mental triggers that got you to where you are. Go to group and redouble your recovery efforts.

List of Triggers for Relapse

Although we may have already touched upon some of the emotional and mental triggers, below we will discuss in further detail some of the most common triggers.

  • HALT – While there are a variety of emotions that you need to be wary of, there are four specific emotional states at which you are typically most vulnerable. This acronym refers to the following triggering states:
    • Hungry
    • Angry
    • Lonely
    • Tired

Often people are tempted to use when they are experiencing these high-risk situations. To avoid such states take the following actions:

    • Eat healthy food routinely
    • Get plenty of sleep: ideally at least 8 hours
    • Learn to recognize the root causes for anger and healthy techniques for letting off steam
    • Avoid isolation. Instead, surround yourself with people you care about that support you
  • Tragedy – Everyone who lives long enough will experience their fair share of tragedy and heartache. Knowing this does not make it easier to bear, but it can help you mentally prepare for its eventuality. Sadness and hurt are healthy and normal reactions. What matters is how you handle hardship and grief without using substances as an emotional blanket. When you do experience heartache, at all costs do not socially isolate yourself. Instead, lean into others and rely on them to grieve with you and help you get through hard times.
  • Stress – Stress is one of the most common triggers for relapse because it can affect your mind, body, and spirit. Stress can come from a hundred different avenues which is why you should look for ways to avoid it whenever possible. Again, it’s a natural response and what matters is whether you control it or allow it to control you. Consider any of the following activities to help you cut down on stress:
    • Meditate
    • Pray
    • Journal
    • Play or listen to music
    • Exercise
    • Relax in the sun
    • Read
    • Do yoga
    • Stretch
    • Spend time with friends
  • Over-confidence – Self-confidence is a good thing, but overconfidence is folly. It puts you at risk of relapsing since your defensive barriers are naturally lowered. You might overestimate your strength and needlessly tempt yourself, avoid going to your group, or think that you could have just a sip or a hit and still be fine. Addiction cannot be cured, only put into remission. You are always but one step away from falling back into a lifestyle of substance abuse, so it is critical that you constantly remind yourself of that and remain engaged in self-care and group therapy.
  • Social gatherings – Celebrations and special events such as parties, weddings, game nights, or backyard BBQs are all places that you need to be wary of, especially if you are an alcoholic. If you are in the early stages of recovery, it might be wise to avoid places where drugs or alcohol are commonplace.

If you have to go, ask your spouse or a friend to help you through it and keep you accountable. While it may seem like a drag, you will eventually need to learn how to handle such occasions in a sober state. Do not be embarrassed about your long-term recovery. By owning it and sharing with others about your struggles, they will feel far less inclined to tempt you. If the temptation feels too great, have an exit strategy in place so that you can get yourself out of a tricky situation.

  • Romantic Relationships – Sex and romance can be both good and bad when it comes to relapse. If you are not already in a relationship, most counselors suggest that you avoid romantic relationships for at least a year in order to focus on yourself. New romantic relationships are easy triggers for relapse, especially since they can cause you stress, hurt, or end in a breakup. Also, it is easy for addicts to simply fill the void left by sobriety with a new addiction to sex or love.  

Prepare Yourself

Recognizing the signs of relapse and the common triggers can help you prepare for the long journey ahead. Maintaining your sobriety is not easy, but it is rewarding. If you wish to have continued success in your long-term recovery, stay vigilant, humble, and practice self-care. Each day should be treated as day one of recovery, whether you have been sober for a week or ten years. Doing so will help you spot triggers and handle them in a healthy manner.

If you are currently suffering from a drug addiction, please know that help is always available. Feel free to call our alcohol and drug detox experts today to discuss Georgia treatment options near you.


Slomski, A. JAMA Network. Mindfulness-Based Intervention and Substance Abuse Relapse. (2014).

American Addiction Centers. Post-Acute-Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS): An In-Depth Guide.

Healthy Psych. H.A.L.T.: A Self-Care Tool. (2014).


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