Avoiding Triggers: A Guide to Staying Sober

Avoiding Triggers: A Guide to Staying Sober

Learning how to avoid triggers in recovery is one of the most beneficial parts of seeking treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction in residential rehab.

It places you in a safe environment away from many of the people, places and triggers associated with your substance misuse. Avoiding triggers entirely is not always possible, but rehab does allow you to focus on your recovery with minimal distractions.

Whether you tackle your addiction in drug or alcohol rehab, through an outpatient treatment programme or through any other means, recovery is an ongoing process. Getting clean and sober is a huge step, but it is not the end of the battle. Staying sober can remain a challenge, and avoiding or dealing with triggers is a major part of ongoing addiction recovery.


What is an Addiction trigger?

An addiction trigger refers to anything that can activate strong cravings or urges for addictive behaviours or substances.

Triggers can be different for each person, but most of the time, they include situations, emotions, people, or places that remind someone of their addictive habits.

For example, stress, being around others who are using drugs or alcohol, certain environments associated with past substance use, or feeling certain strong emotions (like sadness, shame or rage) can act as relapse triggers.

When someone encounters these triggers, it can make them much more susceptible to relapse, leading them to engage in addictive behaviours again.

Recognising and understanding these triggers is incredibly important to recover from an addiction, as it allows individuals to develop strategies to avoid or cope with them in a healthy and supportive way.


What’s the Difference Between a Trigger and a Craving?

A trigger and a craving are often mistakenly considered interchangeable terms, but they are actually two distinct concepts. However, it is common for these two experiences to occur simultaneously during a relapse.

A trigger is an internal or external stimulus that sets off a thought, feeling, or behaviour that is directly related to alcohol consumption or drug use. It could be something as simple as seeing an old yet familiar face, going to a location where one used to use drugs or alcohol, a particular stressor, or even an emotional state like feeling lonely or depressed.

On the other hand, a craving can be defined as an intense desire to use drugs or alcohol. It’s a physiological and psychological response that typically follows exposure to a trigger. Cravings are entirely subjective and often hard to manage because they generate a strong impulse to return to substance use – which is another reason why learning how to avoid triggers in recovery is so important.


Understanding Drug and Alcohol Addiction Triggers

A trigger in terms of alcohol and drug addiction is anything that brings back thoughts, feelings and actions associated with your drinking or drug use. One definition of a trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction.

This external stimulus ‘would lead the individual to repeat drug use or relapse after a period of abstinence’. Some studies suggest that triggers can be internal as well as external, however.

External triggers can include people, places and things that remind you of your substance abuse and use. These may be referred to as environmental triggers and could include things like:

  • Being around people you used to drink or take drugs with.
  • Being in places such as bars or locations where you have taken drugs.
  • Seeing people drink or take drugs.
  • Seeing alcohol and other substance-related marketing or use depicted in film and TV.
  • Parties and celebrations.
  • Music or songs associated with previous substance misuse.

Situational and emotional triggers can also be very difficult to deal with, especially if your previous reaction to them was to pour a drink or turn to drugs. These types of triggers could include:

  • Experiencing stress from various sources.
  • Work or financial problems.
  • Family problems, issues and rows with a partner; break-ups or divorce.
  • Other major life events like moving house or getting married.
  • Anxiety from social situations.

There may also be internal or external stimulus triggers that are psychological or emotional in nature. These could include:

  • Loneliness and isolation.
  • Depression.
  • Experiencing rejection.
  • Feelings of low self-worth.
  • Strong emotions, including ‘negative’ ones such as hate and ‘positive’ ones such as joy.
  • Frustration with the progress during recovery.


Common Relapse Triggers in Recovery

As we mentioned above, there can be many relapse triggers in recovery. But, there are some that are more likely to cause a person to look for a release, ultimately leading them to relapse.

Romantic Relationship Triggers

It is recommended that individuals in the early stages of their recovery process should avoid starting new romantic relationships, especially within the first three months of sobriety.

This period is considered to have the highest risk of relapse, and getting involved in a new relationship during this time could increase the chances of falling back into old habits if things don’t go smoothly.

This isn’t to say people in recovery can’t ever be involved in a romantic relationship ever again. It just means that it’s best to avoid these types of situations until you are in a more secure and stronger place mentally.

Significant Life Changes

Major life changes, both positive and negative, can potentially act as triggers.

This could include the death of a loved one, going through a divorce, having a baby, moving to a new home or location, or even getting a new job. These situations can be stressful and disorienting, which can increase the likelihood of relapse.

Work Relapse Triggers

Job relapse triggers are also a very common cause of relapse. It’s one of the most likely causes of stress, and sometimes it’s impossible to avoid.

From performance pressures, getting in trouble at work or losing your job to getting a promotion to any cause for celebration, a trigger doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be negative. This is why finding healthy coping mechanisms to handle work-related stress is incredibly important to the long-term recovery process.

Unresolved Emotional or Mental Health Issues

Many people who struggle with addiction also have co-occurring mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If these underlying issues are not addressed with the help of a mental health professional and/or managed properly in recovery, they have the potential to act as powerful triggers for relapse.

Financial Pressures

Money worries are a very common relapse trigger.

Whether it’s debt from funding your addiction prior to recovery or trying to cope with managing your financial commitments, stress from trying to stay afloat financially can be incredibly overwhelming. This can cause feelings of shame, embarrassment and hopelessness, which, unfortunately, is more than enough to drive someone to relapse. This is especially true if they are in the early stages of their recovery progress.

It’s always important to remember that you are never alone. Seek support, whether that’s from a financial advisor or advice from a family member from your support system.

Overconfidence in Early Recovery

There’s nothing wrong with coming out of rehab and feeling proud of yourself for following your treatment programme and hopeful for the future. It’s great, and you should feel this way.

But knowing how to avoid triggers in recovery and actually doing so is an entirely different thing. If you were to expose yourself to potentially triggering situations too soon after treatment, it could lead to you experiencing a relapse.

Relapse prevention will teach you that it’s always best to avoid obvious situations where you will be exposed to relapse triggers, even if you feel like you can handle it. For example, this could be hanging out with friends who you used to drink or do drugs with or placing yourself in environments where these behaviours are encouraged.

Avoiding Aftercare or Support Groups

Participation in aftercare programmes and support groups is incredibly important for maintaining long-term recovery. If a person neglects the support that is available to them, they may find themselves without the necessary resources and guidance to prevent relapse, especially when faced with triggers.

Remember, while triggers may lead to drug or alcohol cravings, they do not necessarily lead to physical relapse. Effective coping mechanisms, support, and strategies learned at rehab and in recovery can help a person manage these triggers and continue their path towards long-term sobriety.

It’s also worth mentioning that if a relapse does occur, it’s important not to dwell. Instead, it’s beneficial to see this bump in the recovery road as rather an indication that adjustments may need to be made to the individual’s recovery plan.


Looking back at your time when you were frequently feeding your addiction can look a little different from time to time. One day, you may not miss it at all. But on other days, when you’ve been exposed to particularly stressful situations, and cravings are at an all-time high – you may look back and think it wasn’t all so bad. You might miss it, even. This can eventually lead to a relapse.

Staying focused in recovery is essential to staying sober long-term. On days when you’re looking back at your time struggling to cope with drug or alcohol use and are seriously contemplating using again, remember your “why”. Think about the progress you’ve made and all of the work you have put into your sobriety. Remember the coping skills and strategies you learnt during your time in rehab.

Remember to stay in the present moment. Your past drug or alcohol use was not good for you, and the cravings will eventually pass. You will feel prouder than ever of yourself for overcoming a scenario which could have led you to relapse.


How to Avoid Triggers in Recovery

It’s important to recognise that experiencing triggers from time to time will be a part of life. The key is trigger management to manage these situations effectively.

Below, we’ve outlined some effective strategies for managing triggers, helping you to stay on track and on the right path with your recovery journey.

HALT addiction Relapse Triggers

A helpful acronym often used in active recovery is HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. These four words represent other incredibly common triggers that can happen regularly but increase the risk of addiction relapse significantly.

When individuals find themselves experiencing these distracting emotions, whether that’s a state of hunger, anger, loneliness, or off track with following a regular sleep schedule, their vulnerability to engaging in addictive behaviours or substance use may be heightened.

Recognising these triggers and taking proactive steps to address them is essential in maintaining a strong recovery.

Healthy eating and nourishing yourself properly is a form of self-care. Managing anger in healthy ways and seeking social support is also a form of self-care. Ensuring you get enough rest is also incredibly important when you’re trying to lower the risk of relapse and promote your overall well-being. It’s incredibly important to prioritise yourself, even if it’s just by ensuring your basic needs are met.

Build New Routines That Bring You Joy

Replacing old habits and routines that might trigger a relapse with new, healthier, and more fulfilling ones will also likely be beneficial. However, building new routines can be overwhelming, so try not to push yourself too much. Slow and steady steps towards building the life you envision for yourself are more than enough.

New routines and habits could involve pursuing new hobbies, finding new social activities that don’t involve substance use, and developing a structured daily routine to minimise the chances of encountering triggers. It’ll look different for everyone, but as long as it suits you, that’s what matters.

Identify Your Triggers

Everyone’s recovery journey is different, and some things that one recovering addict may find extremely triggering might not be challenging for somebody else.

Identifying your own individual triggers is important as this will allow you to avoid scenarios that induce an intense emotional reaction where possible and formulate ways to avoid them and cope with them when you do encounter them. After all, how are you supposed to learn how to avoid triggers in recovery if you haven’t yet identified your own potential triggers? 

Remember, it is not always possible to avoid stressful situations or depictions of drug or alcohol use or drinking in social media or on TV, for example. But, the key is to work on developing healthy coping skills that prevent relapse. 

If you undergo an addiction treatment programme, you might well take part in relapse prevention sessions that aim (among other things) to help you to identify your triggers. Some triggers may not become apparent until further along in your recovery, however.

Some other ways to identify your triggers could include journaling and self-reflection, keeping a trigger diary and identifying situations where you are at a high risk of relapse. We’ve gone into more detail below. 

Attend Regular Therapy Sessions

If you’ve attended rehab, you will have experienced therapy as part of your programme. But, recovery requires ongoing work, and for some, attending frequent and consistent therapy sessions with a medical professional can be incredibly useful, especially for preventing physical and mental relapse.

You may consider including different therapeutic strategies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT). Both of these therapy styles are designed to help individuals develop and maintain healthy coping mechanisms, understand their thought processes and learn to manage their triggers better.

Journaling and Self-Reflection

It can be useful for some people to keep a journal to make sense of their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

This can involve how you are feeling when triggers, temptations, and cravings take hold. The more you understand your own feelings, the more able you are to take control of your actions.

Keeping a Trigger Diary

This is a little more focused than keeping a journal and involves making notes whenever a trigger takes effect – where you are, who you are with and what you are doing, as well as how you are feeling.

This can help you identify underlying causes and habit patterns that may be associated with cravings and possibly relapse.

Identify High-Risk Situations

Some relapse triggers might seem obvious, like being around people who are drinking or using drugs.

Identifying and listing these situations can help you to avoid them, helping to minimise your exposure to such potential triggers.

Whether you have been through a treatment programme or not, you might also consult with a therapist or addiction recovery professional to explore your triggers and associated negative feelings and behaviours.

Physical Activity

Regular physical activity can also be an incredibly effective coping strategy when dealing with triggers during recovery, offering benefits beyond physical health.

Regular exercise reduces stress by releasing endorphins, natural mood enhancers that also help to alleviate feelings of anxiety. This can play an important role in relapse prevention, as high stress and anxiety often serve as triggers.

Exercise can also minimise symptoms of depression and anxiety while providing a healthy distraction from negative thoughts or cravings. This dual benefit of improving mood and reducing cravings is instrumental in managing triggers.

It may be as simple as establishing a regular exercise routine, which can also help provide much-needed structure in recovery. As we touched on earlier, when a daily routine includes healthy habits (e.g. physical activity), it’s less likely that a person will engage in harmful behaviours when faced with triggers.

You might also want to consider signing up for a team sport or even an exercise class at a gym. This can offer social connections that can help with feelings of isolation, which is a completely normal feeling in early recovery.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Regular mindfulness and meditation can be really beneficial for those in recovery. These activities can help individuals stay grounded in the present moment, lower their stress levels, and develop a better understanding of their thoughts and feelings, which could potentially help with trigger identification and management.

Sometimes, you just can’t always avoid triggers, which is why it’s so important to develop other coping mechanisms and strategies to stay on the right track. These can also help to stave off boredom and depression, which many recovering addicts experience.

Access Your Support Network

Having a strong enough support system and network in place to help you identify how to avoid triggers in recovery can play a huge part in maintaining your sobriety.

You may be lucky enough to have supportive friends, family, colleagues and loved ones. You can also get in touch with support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and/or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). These support networks are completely free to access and run sessions daily. These meetings can be accessed in person across the UK, as well as online. 

Groups such as AA and NA can be incredibly helpful to someone in recovery. This is because, even if you have a support network of friends and family, it can be helpful to talk to people in recovery who understand what you are going through because they have either gone through it themselves or are currently at a similar stage of their own journey.

If you have recently finished treatment at a rehab facility, you may also have access to ongoing support in the form of aftercare. If you are struggling to cope with triggering situations and feel as though you may relapse, it is imperative that you access the resources available to you. Secondary treatment programmes (such as aftercare) are in place for these moments, providing the guidance, care and support needed to help with staying focused and on the right path.

Planning Ahead

Learning how to avoid triggers in recovery is essential, and it’s important to know how to react appropriately when you experience a potential relapse-inducing situation. This is much easier to do when you plan ahead. This can help you to manage triggers and avoid many potential triggers altogether, especially in the first few weeks and months when you may be more vulnerable.

It can also allow you to put your relapse prevention plan into effect and make you far less likely to resort to drugs or alcohol when you do experience a trigger.


Need Help? Reach Out to Us Today

No matter whether you’ve just started your recovery journey or have maintained your sobriety for many years, if you feel as though you have exhausted all options and are on the verge of relapse – don’t wait and reach out to us touch today.

Our friendly and caring admissions team or just a phone call away, and they can help you access the right support to help you resist relapse. Get in touch with us today using our contact form or call 0800 001 4070 for fast admission.