Staying in recovery is never easy, and there are certain people, places, and things that can cause one to relapse. It’s important to learn about addiction relapse triggers and how to avoid them, so that you can realise a full and long-term recovery.
The disease of addiction sees the sufferer repeat harmful behaviors – taking drugs or alcohol or engaging in destructive behaviors such as gambling, in order to achieve feelings of reward they have come to crave. In order to overcome this learnt behaviour, a person suffering from addiction has to learn a whole new set of behaviours and practice them until they become almost instinctive. This takes time, dedication and hard work.
Many people seeking treatment check into an inpatient addiction treatment centre in order to remove themselves from the stressors and triggers in their daily life. However, when these people return home, they are often presented with situations that may cause them to relapse. An outpatient rehab, also known as “dayhab” where clients attend daily or weekly treatment but continue work and live at home, can actually be more challenging because because you are facing addiction triggers daily while in treatment and into recovery.
It is therefore very important that people in recovery learn to identify their addiction triggers – the people, places, and things that make them want to use again – and how to deal with these stimuli in a positive way.
Why Does Relapse Occur?
The longer you live with addiction the more difficult it becomes to stop. This is because whether the source of the addiction is a substance, gambling or sex, the addictive behaviour becomes ingrained in your brain’s reward circuitry, particularly in regard to physical and emotional reward.
With all addictions, as the person’s tolerance levels increase, the pleasure-reward decreases, and the addict needs to increase the amount of substance or the addictive behaviour (such as gambling or sex) in order to experience the same reward. Often, the addiction takes up so much of a person’s time and energy that it can take over his or her life.
While in inpatient rehab, a client can look at the addiction from an objective point of view. However, once back to their daily life, reactions to everyday triggers can cause a relapse. An example might be a recovering alcoholic who has experienced a stressful day. They might normally reach for a drink to numb the stress. However, to avoid a relapse this habit needs to be recognised and replaced with another, positive activity.
Problems arise when those in addiction recovery are unsure of what to replace the addictive behaviours with, or they focus on the feeling of lacking something rather than replacing the habit with a different, more healthy, behaviour.
Triggers Come in Physical, Emotional, and Environmental Forms
Physical Triggers That Cause Relapse
Perhaps the strongest trigger to overcome during recovery involves cravings. With drug, sex or food addictions there is a chemical release in the body. If the cravings are not satisfied, then the body goes through withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin addicts, for example, experience severe physical withdrawal symptoms such as muscle aches, fever and migraines. However, even a recovering gambling addict suffers from craving the brain’s pleasure chemical, dopamine, which they get while gambling.
Being able to recognise a craving and the associated anxiety and stress that accompanies it is essential in the early stages of recovery. A good way to distract yourself from these cravings is to do physical exercise such as jogging or swimming. This will engage your body and release endorphins that will relax you.
Emotional triggers causing relapse
Once the physical symptoms of addiction recovery reside, addicts will have to deal with a wide variety of emotional triggers that can lead to a relapse. The most common are stress, frustration, loneliness, depression, tiredness and anger. These are the feelings that most addicts have been running from and therefore need to be properly addressed in order to realise a full recovery.
The emotional side of addiction and recovery can be hard to deal with as most people try to avoid unpleasant feelings in their daily lives. However, it is important to fully accept and experience these feelings without trying to block or drown them out by using drugs or alcohol. A good way is to keep a diary and to write about addiction recovery related experiences. This is a way that you can start to identify the triggers (i.e. what makes you feel lonely, tired, or stressed) and also start to understand how you react to them.
In Buddhism, it is said that you should accept all your feelings; they come and go. Therefore, in order to overcome emotional triggers that can cause a relapse you need to identify and accept them with mindfulness.
It is also useful to create a list of alternative things to do when you feel an uncomfortable emotion. For example, when you are stressed, perhaps your previous habit was to reach for a joint. By changing the habit to something positive, like getting a massage or breathing deeply, you can retrain yourself and how you react to unpleasant emotions.
Environmental relapse triggers
Another major trigger that can cause recovering addicts to relapse involves finding (or placing) themselves in situations where addictive substances are being offered or abused. For example, one of the most difficult things for a recovering alcoholic to do is go to a nightclub and enjoy him or herself without drinking.
It is important that a person in addiction recovery recognise all of the situations (the people, places, and things) that are associated with the substance and related addiction. Some places can be avoided, but other situations, such as those related to work or family, may be harder to avoid. Recovering addicts must learn how these situation affect them.
A good way to deal with these situations is to visualise in advance how they will look and make you feel, even what you might say or do when in that scenario. Prepare some excuses in advance, to politely refuse substances. Then you will not be under stress to come up with an excuse on the spot. Practicing saying no while in imaginary situations will make it easier when the events actually occur.
What If I Relapse?
Overcoming addiction can take time and effort, and you may relapse even a couple of times. What is essential is to keep the goal of complete recovery in mind and remind yourself why you are recovering. It is also important to keep in mind that having one drink or drug does not mean that your attempt at recovery was for nothing. However, seek help from your counsellor and continue to move forward. A slip is not the same as a fall.
Many in addiction recovery have unrealistic exceptions that they will be able to completely control themselves, recover quickly, or indulge in substance abuse after undergoing treatment. They end up relapsing and being hard on themselves because their expectations were too high.
Recovering from an addiction can be a lifelong journey and should be taken step-by-step. Seeking professional help and dealing with the many triggers that can cause a relapse is one of the best ways to experience a full recovery. Support groups and sponsors who have been through addiction and recovery are some of the best aids to a recovering addict, but also learning how to deal with both physical and emotional triggers are skills that can help addicts fully recover.
If you or someone you know is experiencing addiction related issues, The Cabin Singapore is a specialist outpatient rehabilitation centre that offers an intensive programme for substance addictions such as alcohol and drugs, as well as process addictions like gambling, sex and compulsive use of the internet, with an emphasis on relapse prevention. Trauma and co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression are also treated.
Contact The Cabin Singapore for more information on addiction and how to overcome it.