Alexandra LaFollette
February 19, 2024

Breaking the Cycle: Overcoming the Worst Relapse Triggers

There is always a risk of relapse after alcohol or drug addiction treatment. According to NIDA, about 40 to 60% of people relapse within the first year of recovery. That's because substance use alters the structure and function of the brain, and these effects persist well beyond when sobriety is first obtained. But the good news is relapse is part of the recovery process, and it's possible to break the cycle and live a healthy, fulfilling life. But first you have to learn how to identify, and avoid your worst relapse triggers.

How Does a Relapse Happen?

Specific thoughts, feelings, and life events can trigger solid desires for drugs or alcohol, and if you don't handle them well, it could increase the chances of relapsing. According to a relapse prevention model by Marlatt and Gordon, relapse starts with a high-risk situation that's followed by poor coping mechanisms. As NIDA puts it, relapse rates for substance use are similar to those of chronic diseases like hypertension and asthma; if you stop following your medical treatment plan, you'll be likely to relapse.

A relapse usually happens in three stages

Emotional Relapse

This stage starts way before you even think about using drugs or alcohol. Here, you might struggle to deal with your emotions healthily. You might keep your feelings inside, avoid people, pretend your problems aren't there, and forget to care for yourself. Even though using substances might not be on your mind at this point, avoiding your emotions and challenging situations can set the stage for a relapse later on.

Mental Relapse

In this stage, you start having conflicting feelings about staying sober. Part of you wants to keep clean, but another part is fighting intense cravings and secretly thinking about ways to relapse. Mental relapse can also involve remembering the good times when you used drugs, downplaying the dire consequences, and actively looking for opportunities to use again.

Physical Relapse


The final stage is when you start using drugs or alcohol. It might begin with a minor lapse, like having just one drink or drug. But it can quickly spiral into a full-blown relapse, where it feels like you have little to no control over using.

Understanding these stages can help you recognize the warning signs and take steps to prevent a relapse. It's important to address emotional struggles, conflicting thoughts, and cravings early on to maintain a strong foundation in your recovery journey.

How to Overcome the Worst Triggers

Relapse triggers are things that can increase the risk of going back to drug or alcohol abuse. They include:

  • Negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, boredom, anger
  • High-stress levels, social anxiety, etc.
  • People or places that trigger memory of drug use
  • Social events or celebrations that include substances
  • Complacency

In a nutshell, relapse triggers can be as tangible as a specific person or place or internal feelings like loneliness and stress. If you experience these relapse red flags, here's how you can overcome them:

Identify Your Destructive Triggers

You need to know what your triggers are if you are to overcome them. The best way to do this is to perform a comprehensive self-examination, carefully analyzing the situation or stimuli that precede a relapse. This introspection will help you unveil patterns and connections between specific triggers and the desire to turn to addictive substances. When you can pinpoint your triggers with precision, you can proactively navigate around them.

Develop Healthy Coping Strategies

Once you've identified your destructive triggers, the next step is to develop healthy coping strategies to replace the harmful behaviors associated with those triggers. Here are some strategies you can consider:

  1. Mindfulness and Meditation: Practices like mindfulness meditation can help you stay present in the moment, manage stress, and gain better control over your thoughts and emotions.
  2. Exercise: Regular workouts and physical activities can help reduce stress and boost your mood. It can also provide a natural outlet for pent-up energy and frustration.
  3. Healthy Outlets for Expression: Find alternative ways to express your emotions. Art, music, talking with a friend or therapist, listening to music or singing are all greast examples of healthy outlets. 
  4. Time Management: Create a structured schedule to help manage your time effectively. This can reduce overwhelming feelings and provide a sense of control over your life.

Build a Support System

Social isolation can be a relapse trigger. So, in addition to the healthy coping skills above, you want to connect with friends and family. In addition, it tends to strain trust, communication, and emotional bonds.

Take time to apologize for any harm caused by your actions. You can also help your loved ones understand the nature of addiction and how they can support you in recovery. Better yet, consider involving your family in therapy sessions so you can address issues, improve communication and rebuild trust.

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Regular Check-ins

Beyond family and friends, you can join addiction-related support systems like 12-step programs to share your journey with those who have had similar experiences. Attend the meetings religiously, whether face-to-face, phone calls, or video chats, to maintain connections and accountability.

Build Healthy Relationships

Establish clear boundaries in your relationships. Communicate your needs and ensure that your interactions contribute positively to your well-being. You also want to surround yourself with individuals who support your goals and are positive influences. Distance yourself from those who may hinder your progress.

Seek Professional Help and Support

If you're still struggling with managing your triggers, it's in your best interest to seek professional help. A licensed addiction counselor or therapist can provide specialized guidance tailored to your unique challenges. Professional support offers a confidential and non-judgmental space to figure out the root causes of your triggers, develop coping strategies, and work towards sustainable recovery.

Therapists can employ evidence-based approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to address both the mental health and behavioral aspects of addiction. 

Additionally, a therapist can work collaboratively with you to create a relapse prevention plan, set realistic goals, monitor progress, and provide ongoing support as you navigate the journey of overcoming triggers and maintaining lasting change. Seeking professional help is a proactive step towards gaining the tools and insights needed to effectively manage triggers and build a foundation for a healthier, more fulfilling life.


What are relapse triggers, and why are they significant in addiction recovery?

Relapse triggers are situations, emotions, or cues that can prompt individuals in recovery from addiction to return to substance use. These triggers can vary widely and may include stress, negative emotions, social pressures, environmental cues, or exposure to drugs or alcohol. Understanding and identifying relapse triggers is crucial in addiction recovery because they represent potential vulnerabilities that can undermine progress and lead to a return toaddictive behaviors.

By recognizing and addressing relapse triggers, individuals in recovery can develop coping strategies, resilience, and alternative responses to manage challenging situations without resorting to substance use. Treatment programs often focus on teaching individuals how to identify and cope with relapse triggers effectively, empowering them to navigate high-risk situations and maintain long-term sobriety. Moreover, understanding relapse triggers can help loved ones and healthcare providers provide support and assistance tailored to the individual's needs, enhancing the likelihood of successful recovery.

How can identifying and understanding relapse triggers help in the recovery process?

Identifying and understanding relapse triggers plays a crucial role in the recovery process from addiction. By recognizing specific situations, emotions, or cues that may lead to relapse, individuals can develop greater self-awareness and insight into their vulnerabilities. This awareness allows them to anticipate and prepare for potential challenges, empowering them to proactively implement coping strategies and preventive measures to avoid relapse.

Moreover, understanding relapse triggers enables individuals to address underlying issues and develop healthier coping mechanisms to manage stress, cravings, and negative emotions effectively. Treatment programs often incorporate relapse prevention strategies that focus on identifying triggers and developing personalized coping skills tailored to the individual's needs. Additionally, loved ones and support networks can provide invaluable support and assistance by helping individuals navigate high-risk situations and reinforcing positive behaviors.

Ultimately, by actively engaging in the process of identifying and understanding relapse triggers, individuals in recovery can enhance their resilience, self-control, and long-term sobriety. This proactive approach strengthens their ability to maintain progress, overcome challenges, and achieve sustained recovery from addiction.

How do emotional triggers impact relapse, and what coping mechanisms can be utilized to address them?

Emotional triggers can significantly impact relapse by eliciting intense cravings and impulses to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. To address these triggers effectively, individuals in recovery can utilize coping mechanisms such as developing emotional awareness through mindfulness, building healthy coping skills like deep breathing or journaling, seeking support from trusted individuals or support groups, practicing stress management techniques, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and engaging in therapy to explore underlying emotional issues and develop effective coping strategies. By incorporating these strategies into their daily routines, individuals can strengthen their ability to manage emotional triggers and reduce the risk of relapse effectively.

How does nutrition and physical wellness contribute to relapse prevention?

Nutrition and physical wellness are vital for relapse prevention in recovery. A balanced diet rich in essential nutrients stabilizes mood, reduces cravings, and supports overall health, enhancing resilience against triggers associated with substance use. Similarly, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and stress management techniques like mindfulness and deep breathing promote emotional stability and confidence, reducing vulnerability to relapse triggers. Prioritizing nutrition and physical well-being as part of a holistic recovery approach helps individuals maintain sobriety, manage cravings, and reduce the risk of relapse by bolstering overall health and resilience. Incorporating healthy lifestyle habits into daily routines strengthens individuals' ability to navigate challenges and sustain long-term sobriety.

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