Identifying Addiction Relapse Triggers

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Identifying addiction relapse triggers is the first step toward preventing relapse. Triggers in recovery 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.

Luckily, with the help of professional treatment programs like Renaissance Recovery’s California rehab clients can learn to achieve long-term recovery once. So, if you are thinking “I need rehab” don’t hesitate to reach out for treatment today.

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 Addiction Triggers

External addiction 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.

a person learning about addiction triggers


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:

  • Neighborhoods
  • Friend’s houses
  • Work
  • Recreational facilities
  • Sporting events
  • Bars/clubs
  • Resorts or vacation destinations
  • Concerts
  • Schools
  • or anywhere you used to abuse substances


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 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 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.

a person learning about addiction triggers

Internal Addiction Triggers in Recovery

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 to such situations. Addiction recovery treatment will help start and foster that process.

Overcome Addiction Relapse at Renaissance Recovery

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.

Call our Orange County rehab today at 866.330.9449 to learn more about how you can overcome addiction relapse triggers and conquer substance abuse once and for all.

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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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Paige R

“They truly cared for me and the other people that I served with! From this group, I have made 8 new brothers and friends for life! We have continued on, after the program, to take care of each other”

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Courtney S

“Great staff who took the time to get to know me. They have a lot of experience in this field and have first hand experience with what I was going through. IOP is outstanding and really built up a ton of great relationships and found this program to be a ‘breath of fresh air’.”

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

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