A New Look at 10 Addiction Relapse Triggers

It is impractical to run from the store when you are triggered in the alcohol aisle!

You are new to recovery and innocently pushing your cart down the aisle at the local Fresh Market. Let’s say it’s a gloomy Sunday afternoon. You round the corner, and there in front of you is the alcohol aisle. Aisles more like it, all shapes and sizes of beer and wine stacked and displayed artfully. What does a person new to recovery do? Rainy Sundays were “drinking days,” and the sight of alcohol is an emotional trigger telling you to BUY ME and DRINK ME. Of course, you could go to a different store without alcohol or run out of Fresh Market and buy dinner at a fast-food drive-throughBut that is impractical and not sustainable.


What is a Trigger?

Addiction recovery presents challenges and obstacles, especially in the early days. Anyone who is trying to make a significant life change may experience relapse triggers that arise unexpectedly. A trigger is an emotional, environmental, or social situation that evokes memories of past drug or alcohol use, threatening to weaken one’s resolve. Triggers can be internal, such as the feeling of loneliness, or they can also come from external sources, like pushing your grocery cart into the wine aisle or hearing a song that takes you back to another place and time. For lasting recovery, both internal and external triggers must be resolved.


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Sanford Behavioral Health offers a personalized treatment plan to meet our patient’s unique needs, goals, and preferences. Our team considers the individual’s history, current circumstances, and specific treatment objectives to develop a comprehensive program for residential treatment. Additionally, we work with our clients to get to the root cause of addiction. This allows our clients to manage life’s curveballs with a individualized set of coping tools.


Our treatment centers at Sanford Behavioral Health offer residential, outpatient, or telehealth programs. Our team of licensed and certified professionals includes psychiatrists, medical providers, primary therapists, addiction counselors, and specialty therapists who offer individualized treatment plans to meet your goals for recovery.


This therapeutic fact of giving a new meaning to the trigger [as something internal] does not exclude the traditional therapeutic avoiding of the trigger, which is an urgent aim at the beginning of the treatment. Nevertheless, after that initial phase, the inner problem should also be addressed. Actually, both are necessary, one to get initial abstinence and the other to help the addict to resolve the frustration underlying drug addiction. National Library of Medicine, What is the “Trigger” of Addiction”


Tackling Challenges in Recovery

At Sanford Behavioral Health, we prepare for recovery challenges while in treatment. In that regard, we develop individual recovery plans designed to provide support and accountability to each individual in our care. Likewise, our Family Program addresses the warning signs of relapse triggers with loved ones. Of note, the longer a person is in recovery, the easier it is to incorporate activities back into their life. Avoidance is often the best response in early recovery, but creating a new reward to replace the “false reward” of alcohol or other drugs also works. Following are some common relapse triggers and tips for tackling them.


tackling relapse triggers

It’s unfair, but summer activities may be a trigger.


Common Relapse Triggers and How to Tackle:

Summer Vacation and Boating

It’s unfair, but summer vacation and boating equals drinking and partying for many. And in Michigan, summer fun is fleeting, so there is a sense of urgency. The answer to this trigger is – water. So keep your glass filled with water, and put plenty of bottled water in the cooler. Jump in the lake. Soak your head!  But be honest – if you plan a vacation or day trip with people who drink, you may want to cancel.


Alone Time

Community is vital to long-term recovery; you hear this in Ted Talks and AA meetings. So be accountable to as many people and activities as you can schedule. Hike in the woods, learn to rollerblade, or join a birding or book group—the more, the merrier.


Sporting Events and Tailgating Parties are BIG Relapse Triggers

This might be one thing to avoid in early recovery – especially tailgating. If, on the other hand, you hosted these events in the past, pass the torch. If you decide to go to the game or watch it on TV, arrive for the kickoff, andleave as soon as the game is over. Have an exit strategy and a sober friend at the ready.



Parties, Special Occasions, and Holidays

Arrive early and leave early. As mentioned above, have an exit plan and a sober companion. Hold your head high; you are making a significant life change! Bring mocktails.


Accusations and Arguments

There will be a period when your loved ones may not trust you. They might smell your breath or ask you where you’ve been. There might even be lingering anger about why you used drugs or alcohol in the first place. Do not take the bait. Anger is an ugly emotion and a trigger to relapse. Instead, say calmly, “This is not helping me.” The only genuine answer for everyone involved is finding connection. Connection to the support system that will help you adjust to and heal from the major life changes you are all making.


triggers boys fighting

Family – they will push every button!


Children and Other Family Members

Family members push all your buttons. They are the people you want to impress. They also know you best and think they know what’s best for you.  But this is your recovery. Protect yourself. So be it if it means limiting family exposure or drama for a period. Children are resilient; consider telling them, “Let go of the hem of Mommy’s garment.” Time – time is on your side, and so is consistency.


Open Alcohol and Pill Bottles

There is no excuse for having open bottles of alcohol or pills in the house of a newly recovered individual. Why tempt fate? A family member’s prescribed painkillers should be locked away. The loved ones who appreciate your hard work should be willing to remove relapse triggers and temptation.


Sex (Before, During, After)

Oh boy. A lot of people use alcohol or drugs for mood enhancement. Most newly sober people feel inhibited in social situations and the bedroom. There is often a clear-eyed reevaluation of sexual partners. It takes time for the inhibition to lessen, but it’s like riding a bike.



Familiar Places (Streets, Liquor Stores, Grocery Stores)

This one is tough. If the street corner where you bought your drugs is near work and you must pass it daily, take the scenic route. Do not ever go into your local liquor store again, and when grocery shopping, be mindful of the wall of wine on aisle 17. This is another one of the stressors that lessen with time. In the early days, avoid those places you associate with buying your drug of use.


Changing Seasons – Relapse Triggers

You cannot stop the seasons from changing. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is real, and like all the above, it is best to take stock of your feelings when it hits. In Michigan, the end of summer brings melancholy and SAD symptoms abound for some. So, get outside in the fresh air and go for a walk, write in your journal, and if things get troubling, seek professional help. At Sanford, telehealth and outpatient programs provide real-life options for treatment or refresher courses. In addition, family and alums programs will help you maintain a connection.


Make Some Noise!

When a trigger or craving hits, you should acknowledge it and make some noise. Pick up the phone and call a sober friend, get thee to a 12-step meeting, but do not suffer in silence or think you should handle it on your own. In early recovery, you are learning to ask for help. You are also opening up and reclaiming your feelings as you manage this monumental life change. The best thing to do is listen to your intuition. It probably isn’t if it doesn’t feel right for your recovery.



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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.