Flying High: Why Airports Are Triggers for Those in Recovery

airports are triggers

Beware. Happy memories, commingled with thoughts of drinking, can create a dangerous nostalgia.


The holidays are coming, and we have begun to venture back to the friendly skies. It seems that everyone is donning a mask and getting on a plane going somewhere. For those of us in recovery, walking through a brightly lit airport has the potential to trigger memories of a high flying past. And airports almost always bring back fond memories of vacations, successful business trips and reconnecting with loved ones. Those happy memories, commingled with thoughts of drinking, can create a dangerous nostalgia.


Airports are Triggers

Memories of vacation beginning with the first drink…

I have heard so many people say, “Vacation starts when I have the first drink on the plane.” But a boozy vacation can start in one of the ringside bars that always seem to be open for “breakfast” in the airport as well. There is an urgency to drinking in airports. Getting “just one more” down the gullet before a flight gets called is common practice. And it is so easy and guiltless to belt three Bloody Marys in the Sky Club at 8 AM before a flight. After all, you could be from England.


These days, flight attendants monitor the behavior of passengers (no more ordering bourbon with beer chasers or slurring demands). But you can bring small bottles of liquor on-board. And as long as you don’t seem like a threat to national security or do the Macarena in the isles, they should leave you alone to quietly get inebriated in your seat. As long as you put your mask over your nose and mouth after each sip.


Why Airports are Triggers to those in Recovery

  • You can order a Mai Tai in the morning without anyone looking askance. People drink in airports at all hours.
  • You can drink FAST; waitstaff are used to pouring libations for those who are in a hurry.
  • Also, those fond memories surface of past drinking/traveling experiences. (Why do we conveniently forget the scratchy, headachy aftermath of drinking at 30,000 feet?)


When traveling alone, who would know if you drank?


  • There is ample time to “sleep it off” if you are meeting someone on the other end.
  • Or there is always the airport hotel and a lie about a missed flight…
  • You are surrounded by people who think, “Vacation begins with the first drink.”
  • Fear of flying.
  • Travelers seem to be having a great time in omnipresent bars!
  • Duty free shops with brightly colored posters crow “Cheap Alcohol!”
  • The sounds and the smells and the lights awaken the classical conditioning of addiction.


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When traveling alone, who would know?

Airports are tough to navigate

I’ll admit it: eight years sober and airports are still difficult for me to navigate. Sometimes, the voice of the little devil on my shoulder says, “Oh why not? Who would know?” I sometimes wish the airport authorities would put all the drinkers into one of those ghastly isolated rooms they used to put smokers. But it is not going to happen.


We all have to travel on planes, so what do we do when we are ambushed by one of the triggers above?


Pause and recognize the feeling. Triggers are associated with emotional memory. You can’t help experiencing the feeling, but you can help what you do with it. If you are not traveling with a sober companion, be prepared. Have a distraction plan in place. Write in a journal or work on a project that has a deadline. Stay away from those areas in the airport that have restaurants and bars. Your emotional mind plus your reasonable mind will equal your wise mind.

Lynnel Brewster, RN, LPC, LLMFT, CCTP, Sanford Behavioral Health Clinical Director



One of the best pieces of advice someone in recovery can get is, “When you are tempted to drink, play the situation all the way to the end in your mind.” Consequently, your thoughts travel past immediate gratification to the horror of waking in an airport hotel with a hangover and a lot of explaining to do. Lynnel Brewster says, “Better yet, play the scenario out to its positive end. How will it feel when you get off the plane, fresh and energetic? And with a project completed and a brand new day full of endless possibilities stretching before you!”


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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.