What are Triggers in Addiction?

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Addiction is a complicated and intricate condition, and it’s often remarkably puzzling for those watching loved ones struggle with alcohol or substance abuse.

The confusing nature of addiction often leads family members to question why their loved one would keep on drinking or using drugs when they have so much to lose. If you’re the one struggling with addiction, there’s no convincing answer you can give them.

Although addiction is multifaceted, triggers and cravings are largely responsible for someone dependent on drink or drugs continuing in spite of damaging consequences.

Whether it’s you with an addiction or a loved one you’re trying to help, pinning down and understanding the role triggers play in this debilitating disease can strengthen your chances of recovery.

Also, given the way triggers can so easily lead to relapse, the more you can do to prepare for this, the better your chance of overcoming temptation when it inevitably comes knocking.

The Importance of Relapse Prevention in Recovery

Getting sober and detoxing is a crucial stage of recovery without which nothing else can fall into place.

That said, detox is only the very first step on a lifelong journey. While addiction is treatable, there is no cure, and ongoing management is regularly required, especially in the case of severe addictions.

With this vital hurdle navigated, learning effective relapse prevention techniques can give you a much stronger chance of combating the cravings and triggers you’ll doubtless experience as you continue on your journey of sobriety. 

Failing to learn the tools to beat triggers and drive away cravings could easily be responsible for derailing your sobriety before you’ve got any real traction.

Think of it this way:

You will experience cravings to drink or use drugs if you are being treated for addiction. This is inevitable. Ask yourself whether you want to deal with this unprepared when you are feeling low and ill-equipped to cope, or deal with it right now so you can face up to cravings with a plan in place.

Many inpatient treatment centers offer relapse prevention alongside core treatments like behavioral therapies. If you attend a 12-step group, you’ll find that relapse prevention is baked into the program. It’s also a common component in outpatient treatment, support groups, and sober living communities.

So, by gaining a firm understanding of how to identify, avoid, and ultimately overcome addiction triggers, you should reduce the duration and intensity of these cravings.

First, it’s crucial to underscore the difference between triggers and cravings.



Addiction Cravings and Triggers

Anything the brain associates with the high delivered by substance abuse is considered an addiction trigger.

Triggers can be physical, such as the intensely uncomfortable feelings you experience during withdrawal. Even if you’re determined to clean up and stay sober, your brain is telling you that using drugs or alcohol will reduce or eliminate this discomfort.

Psychological triggers also occur, often as a result of depression, anxiety, or toxic stress.

Whether physical or psychological, triggers cause the brain to respond by craving the substance in question. Your brain is telling you that a beer, a joint, or a line of coke would ease this feeling. This happens due to the way addiction wires your brain to associate drinking or using drugs with positive feelings or happiness.

Triggers can strike at any time.

The cravings that follow can be fleeting, or they may linger for days, even weeks.

If you fail to address cravings, they can become almost impossible to shake. The good news, though, is that learning how to better manage these triggers will reduce the number of cravings you need to resist.

Addiction Triggers List

  • People, places and things: Running into friends who were drink or drug buddies is perhaps the most common and obvious trigger. Places associated with drinking or drug use can trigger the same cravings. Sometimes, even old drug paraphernalia might be enough to set off cravings. Make absolutely certain to throw away anything and everything that reminds you of your old ways.
  • Major, negative life events: Life has its ups and downs, but if one of these downs is a trauma or tragedy, from the death of a loved one through to divorce, this type of life event commonly triggers cravings if you’re suffering from addiction.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Nausea, fatigue, exhaustion, and insomnia during the initial stages of detox are often enough to trigger severe cravings. This is one of the many reasons why medication-assisted detox in an inpatient setting is so effective.
  • PAWS (post-acute withdrawal symptoms): PAWS can endure for 18 months or more. This secondary withdrawal stage occurs as your brain chemistry normalizes. It’s commonplace to crave drink or drugs as a result.
  • Poor self-care: Too little sleep and exercise along with too much stress and a poor diet is a surefire invitation for cravings. These areas of life can cause you to feel depressed, irritable, or anxious, triggering cravings.
  • Toxic relationships: Any relationships triggering stress or emotional turmoil are also likely to trigger cravings when you’re in addiction recovery.
  • Prolonged social isolation: It’s not healthy to spend too much time socially isolated. This can easily trigger cravings.

More broadly, we can categorize triggers as follows:

  • Social triggers
  • Emotional triggers
  • Pattern triggers
  • Withdrawal triggers

Social triggers

Social triggers are people or groups of people you associate with drinking or drug use. These are frequently referred to as drink buddies or drug buddies. If you’re recovering from addiction and bump into these people, you’ll experience a social trigger and cravings to use alcohol or drugs. 

Emotional triggers

Drug use and heavy drinking often has deep emotional roots. Whether you’re celebrating your abundant joy, or you’re self-medicating to numb pain or sadness, emotional, cravings typically follow these feelings. Emotional triggers can be hard to counter.

Pattern triggers

Times of the day, seasons, and any significant events or holidays can act as pattern triggers and cause cravings for drink or drugs.

Withdrawal triggers

Social, emotional, and pattern triggers are psychologically conditioned. A withdrawal trigger, on the other hand, is a simple biological response to the substance no longer in your body. Withdrawal triggers normally occur in the first few weeks of recovery as the substance leaves your body. 

Although triggers can occur randomly, they are invariably linked to your previous drinking or drug abuse.

The most dangerous triggers span several categories. If you spent every Christmas drinking heavily with your family members, you’ll potentially be faced with triggers across all of the above categories. As you would expect, cravings will be correspondingly strong.

Now you have a clear overview of the many triggers that you’re liable to encounter on your road to recovery, how can you get to the bottom of them?

How To Identify Your Addiction Triggers

As we have established, anything can act as a trigger. Here are just a handful of examples, drawing from the above: 

  • Bars
  • Restaurants
  • Sadness
  • Happiness
  • Anxiety
  • Friends you used with
  • Environmental clues
  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Parties
  • Holidays
  • Life events
  • Stress at work
  • Relationship turmoil
  • Trauma

While some people may suffer from a seemingly endless series of triggers, others get away with fewer triggers for cravings.

When you first embark on your recovery journey, you might find it hard to identify what is triggering you to crave drink or drugs. This is normal but don’t let it dissuade you from digging deep.

If you’re stuck, you could start by paying very close attention to yourself and the level of your cravings for drink or drugs right now. Write this down. Keep tracking cravings, and note the accompanying people, places, feelings, and things.

Another approach is to reflect on your past drinking or drug use. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where was I?
  • Who was I with?
  • When did this happen?
  • How did I feel (before, during, and after)

As you answer these questions, you may find yourself uncovering more triggers. Jot these down and add to your record with as many concrete examples as possible.

It’s not always straightforward identifying triggers as they don’t always have a direct physical effect on the body.

Knowing about both physical and psychological triggers is key if you want to minimize your chances of relapse during recovery. 

Addiction Triggers: Physical Symptoms

  • Feeling of tightness in your stomach
  • Feeling nervous throughout your body

Addiction Triggers: Psychological Symptoms

  • Frequent thoughts of how good it would be to drink or use drugs
  • Planning how you would acquire substances
  • Remembering times in the past when you used substances
  • Feeling the need for substances

How to Overcome Triggers and Cravings

Different triggers call for different strategies, so you won’t be able to lash together a boilerplate solution for all eventualities.

The same applies to cravings. You may find that as cravings come and go, so different strategies for managing them become either more or less effective. Be flexible and adapt. You’ll need to be prepared to experiment, and you’ll need to pack plenty of patience, too.

Here are a handful of solutions to counter triggers and cravings:

  • Avoiding the people, places, or things responsible for triggering cravings is sometimes the best strategy. Avoidance might not always be possible, and it may not always be necessary or the best option. If the same triggers keep tripping you up, though, stay away.
  • Eating a balanced diet with plenty of whole, fresh foods rich in protein and complex carbs can strengthen your body and leave you better prepared to manage cravings.
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity each day. This will give you a natural boost as your body releases endorphins and dopamine.
  • Attending support group meetings can be the only way some people find they are able to deal with cravings.
  • Meditating or relaxing can calm you naturally and prevent you craving drink or drugs.
  • Focusing fully on all the positive aspects of your life can be enough to drive away mild cravings.
  • Keeping yourself busy with healthy activities will stave off boredom and help you to avoid triggers.
  • Spend time around positive influences.
  • Immerse yourself in the things you love doing.
  • Disengage with some comedy movies or TV shows. Laughter is often the best medicine in the face of craving drink or drugs.
  • Rest well and try to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. This may be tough in the early stages of recovery, but rest as much as you can.
  • Listen to some relaxing or inspiring music, depending on your mood.
  • Make affirmative statements to yourself, like “I can do this. This will pass.”

Remember, however strong and unmanageable it might feel at the time, all cravings end.

To make things easier as you move forward, journal all your triggers and cravings so you can build a full arsenal of coping strategies to suit.

If you ever find yourself teetering on the brink of relapse, just hold on. Remind yourself of all the ways substance abuse has derailed your life, and simply hold on.


How to Deal With Triggers in Times of Stress and Sadness

Now, you should find you can personalize the above strategies to head off many common trigger and cravings during your day-to-day in sober life. 

How about when you’re feeling especially stressed, sad, or angry? Consider any of the following scenarios:

  • Holidays
  • Funerals
  • Anniversaries of death or divorce

Well, it goes unsaid that the ensuing cravings could feel almost impossible to ignore when emotions are running high. Focus on the word almost, though. 

Reduce your risk of relapse by:

  • Being kind and patient, both with yourself and with others
  • Speaking with your support network or sponsor
  • Allowing yourself to feel rather than suppress your emotions
  • Turning to your faith or spiritual community if appropriate
  • Finding positive and constructive ways of spending your time
  • Helping others in an attempt to refocus on positive actions

Understand in advance the likelihood you will be triggered into cravings for drink or drugs at these times, and plan ahead accordingly. The more strategies you have in place and the more time you have spent thinking about this, the less chance you will relapse.

How Does Addiction Treatment Help You to Overcome Triggers?

You might feel you can stay strong enough to manage triggers and the resultant cravings on your own, but going it alone is seldom the best option. 

Seeking professional treatment can help you to learn the skills you need to stay abstinent long-term. Part of the toolbox you need is an awareness of how to manage these triggers and cravings so you can avoid relapse.

Rehabilitation programs for drink or drug abuse – frequently abbreviated to rehabs – begin either immediately after detoxification, or with detox at the beginning of an inpatient program. During this initial period, your body will be purged of substances.

With an inpatient or residential program, you’ll be completely removed from your normal environment to kickstart your recovery without many social triggers and pattern triggers in place.

Whether you opt for an inpatient or outpatient rehab, you’ll learn:

  • How to build superior coping skills so you can better manage cravings
  • All about addiction and dependence
  • The dangers of sustained substance abuse
  • How to identify triggers and alternatives to drinking or using drugs to cope


Addiction Treatment at Renaissance Recovery

We hope you’ve found some inspiration today, and we hope you have the resolve to identify your triggers for addiction and to formulate strategies for conquering cravings and continuing your journey of lifelong sobriety.

Maybe you haven’t yet detoxed or committed to recovery. If that’s so and you feel ready to make some sweeping changes and reclaim your life, that’s where we come in here at Renaissance Recovery.

We can’t promise you that you won’t crave drink or drugs if you undergo one of our treatment programs. What we can guarantee you is that we can make the whole process much easier.

To get things started, call our friendly team today at 866.330.9449.

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

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“Renaissance Recovery truly changed my life.”

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” I’m grateful for my experience at Renaissance, the staff are very experienced, they gave me the hope I needed in early sobriety, and a variety of coping mechanisms that I can use on a daily basis.”

Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country