Identifying Relapse Triggers

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Identifying relapse triggers is the first step towards preventing relapse. Triggers are social, environmental or emotional situations that remind people in recovery of their past drug or alcohol use. These cues bring about urges that may lead to a relapse. While triggers do not force a person to use drugs, they increase the likelihood of drug use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 40 to 60 percent of people treated for substance use disorders relapse. Long-term drug use creates an association in the brain between daily routines and drug experiences. Individuals may suffer from uncontrollable drug or alcohol cravings when exposed to certain cues. The cravings act as a reflex to external or internal triggers, and this response can even affect individuals who have abstained from drugs or alcohol for a long time.

Examine Potential External Triggers

External triggers are the people, places, and activities and that elicit thoughts or cravings associated with substance use. Individuals in recovery can stay away from the dangers of external triggers by developing action plans to avoid triggers that remind them of past drug use. They should also be prepared to fight thoughts and cravings when they are in triggering situations. A study by NIDA discovered that cocaine-related images subconsciously prompted the emotional centers of the brains of former users. These underlying stimuli and cues set off a rapid activation of the circuits associated with substance cravings. The research maintained that subconscious cues are dangerous because they reinforce the patient’s desire to restart using drugs without them being aware of it. Researchers highlighted the importance of avoiding the people, places and things that remind patients of their former lifestyle.


People closest to the individual may set off cravings that eventually lead to a relapse. It is perilous for a person in recovery to be around substance-using friends and family. Even peers who abstain from illicit drugs can be dangerous. Offering alcohol to a former addict may trigger feelings that urge the individual to use drugs. Friends and family may not understand the consequences of negative behaviors toward people in recovery. These behaviors can make the individuals feel alienated and push them toward substance use.


High-risk places remind former drug users of the times they engaged in substance use. Walking or driving through places where they used to drink or consume drugs can spark a memory connected to drug or alcohol use. When referring to places, you have to look at every single place that could potentially remind you of the times when you were abusing. Such places might include:

  • neighborhoonds
  • friend’s houses
  • work
  • recreational facilities
  • sporting events
  • bars/clubs
  • resorts or vacation destinations
  • concerts
  • schools
  • or anywhere you used to abuse substances, whether it was at a certain perking lot, on a certain street or at your favorite fishing spot


Objects in an individual’s everyday life may induce a craving. Cues such as spoons can trigger memories of drug use in former heroin users without them being aware. These things might include:

  • Paraphernalia
  • Furniture
  • Magazines
  • Movies
  • Television
  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • ATMs
  • Empty pill bottles


If the people, places, things dialogue sounds familiar, it should – it’s part of the 12-step program that so many addiction treatment centers focus on.



People at risk of a relapse should avoid stressful situations that are likely to push them to use drugs and alcohol. There’s just no way to deny that. To do so means avoiding those people, places or things that remind of you of your old habits. While holidays are a time of celebration for some, they may be especially difficult for people in recovery. Holiday parties involving social drinking may be tricky. Family and friends often tempt those in recovery to consume alcohol because they are under the misconception that one deviation from the treatment plan will not be detrimental. If you learn the art of identifying relapse triggers, you’ll be better able to come up with a plan for avoiding them during holidays, which are often the most trying times for a person going through recovery.

Internal Triggers

Internal triggers are more challenging to manage than external triggers. Simply put, they’re about your emotions and how you handled stress when abusing. They involve feelings, thoughts or emotions formerly associated with substance abuse. When internal triggers arise, they can lead to questionable behaviors that deter recovery progress. Exposure to these cues may cause individuals to crave and use substances. A study of rats by the University of Michigan found that the rats largely preferred rewards that triggered the brain’s amygdala, part of the limbic system that produces emotions. The researchers also discovered that the rats were inclined to work harder to obtain the reward that triggered the amygdala than the same reward that did not trigger any emotion in the brain. Researchers deduced that the amygdala played an important role in producing focused and exclusive desire, similar to drug addiction. Internal triggers act in reverse, associating these signals to the substances that elicit them. Part of the recovery process will be to focus on how you deal with stress and emotions. The old habits must be replaced with new instincts. It takes time for the brain to relearn how to adapt in such situations. Addiction recovery treatment will help start and foster that process. It gets easier over time but it requires an open mind and a strong focus, at least until it becomes second nature. Once you start to adapt, you’ll find that it’ll be much easier to put your mind at peace and take yourself away to thoughts that bring you tranquility. Identifying relapse triggers and avoiding them will help expedite the process of retraining your brain.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