5 Addiction Relapse Triggers You Need to Know to Support Someone in Recovery

Even the best treatment during an extended stay at a residential treatment program is not enough for most people to stay sober indefinitely or to avoid urges to use again. Many people will relapse, often due to recognizable and avoidable triggers. To help a loved one in recovery, it is important to understand common triggers, their specific triggers, and ways to avoid or cope with them. With the support of family and friends as well as the strategies learned in treatment, it is possible to avoid relapse, even when triggers are all around.

If you have a loved one, a family member, a friend, or a partner in recovery from substance use disorder, the struggle is not over. Even with good treatment they will experience cravings and feel urges to use again. Many of these are triggered by specific factors, like stress, social anxiety, reminders of past substance use, and underlying mental illness symptoms.

Support your loved one by helping them recognize their triggers, avoid them if possible, and cope with them in positive ways if not.

1. Stress and Difficult Emotions

Stress is a well-known trigger for relapse for any type of addiction. When your loved one feels stressed by life, the urge to use again to try to dispel that stress is strong. Stress can come from a number of situations: work problems, relationship difficulties, home and family responsibilities, and events outside their control like accidents, injuries, or illness.

While stress is a big factor, any difficult emotion can act like a trigger. Using drugs or alcohol to cope with and try to push down feelings like anger, depression, anxiety, or frustration, is a typical strategy your loved one probably relied on for years. Now, when those feelings emerge, they will trigger an urge to relapse.

What is essential in managing these triggers is finding and using healthier coping mechanisms. Your loved one probably learned some of these in treatment, so find out what they are and do them together. Try meditation sessions, taking a yoga class together, going for a walk or getting some other type of exercise. Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, or any fun activity your loved one enjoys can act as a substitute for drugs or alcohol when difficult emotions arise.

2. Relationship Issues

Anything that adds stress or emotional difficulty to a recovering addict’s life can lead to a relapse. Problems in relationships can be a big trigger. Going through treatment and getting sober is a huge life change, and with that often comes shifts in relationships. Some may even end. These changes can be tough to cope with, especially when your loved one really needs support of the people they care about.

You and other people who care can help by supporting strong relationships with the addict in recovery. If possible, participate in treatment. Family can usually attend therapy sessions or educational programs to learn how to best support their loved one in recovery. Therapy together with the patient can help improve communication and strengthen bonds.

Once your loved one is out of treatment and back home in recovery, help them sever any relationships that just aren’t healthy. Also encourage them to shore up those relationships that are positive but need a little help. If it means going to therapy together, go for it. Anything that helps make relationships more positive, supportive, and strong will help them avoid relapsing.

3. Social Events

Many people in recovery report that attending social events, or even the idea of a social event, can be a big trigger for relapse. For some, socializing is yet another activity that adds stress. The idea of facing people may trigger anxiety, which in turn can lead to a relapse in an attempt to cope.

For other addicts in recovery, what makes social events such powerful triggers is seeing other people using substances, typically drinking. In recovery it is very difficult to avoid using again when other people around you are. It seems normal and fun to drink and it’s tempting to join in. This is especially powerful as a trigger for anyone whose pattern of substance use centered on social events.

As a supportive loved one there are several things you can do to help someone manage this trigger:

  • Go with them to events and abstain from drinking.
  • Recruit a few other friends willing to stay sober and help your loved one be accountable at events.
  • Start with smaller events before working up to big parties.
  • Host parties or small gatherings that are alcohol- and drug-free.
  • Practice what to say to people who offer drinks at parties.
  • If your loved one can’t face a party or other event, offer to stay home with them or to do something else that’s fun.

With more time in recovery and avoiding relapse, these events will become easier to face. But how you support your loved one now is essential to helping them stay strong in the face of this relapse trigger.

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4. Friends and Places From the Past

Association and environment are powerful triggers. No matter how strong your loved one feels in recovery, reminders of past drug or alcohol use will trigger the brain and an urge to use again. This is a partially-automatic response that can’t be helped. When your loved one sees an old friend they used to get high with, it brings back memories, feelings, and sensations that will make them want to relapse. This effect is long-term too, according to research. So even when they are firmly in recovery an environmental cue can trigger cravings.

Although this is a powerful type of trigger, it is fairly easy to control. As long as you can help your friend or family member avoid these past places where they used, you can negate the trigger. More difficult may be staying away from old friends who still use drugs or alcohol. Your loved one may want to reconnect with friends, provide support for them, or may just feel bad cutting people out of their lives. Remind them that this is necessary for their own wellness and survival.

5. Underlying Mental Illnesses

One of the most important and persistent triggers for relapse in recovery is mental illness, particularly one or more mental illnesses that are not being addressed, treated, and managed. Co-occurring mental illness and addiction is common. Approximately half of people with a substance use disorder also has a mental illness, and vice versa.

The connection between the two can be complex and may be due to a number of factors. A mental illness, like depression, may trigger drinking or drug use as a way to cope and self-medicate. Substance abuse can also trigger or worsen mental illness symptoms. And, the two things have similar risk factors, so someone with a mental illness is also at a greater risk than average for developing a substance use disorder.

If your loved one has not been evaluated for mental illness, now is a good time to push for it. If they are diagnosed with depression, an anxiety disorder, or another condition, treatment can help manage the symptoms and reduce the frequency of episodes. This in turn will help reduce the risk of relapse. Unmanaged mental illness symptoms are big triggers for substance use.

You can play a powerful role in your loved one’s recovery. With support, active involvement in their life, and specific strategies to avoid and cope with triggers, you can guide them to a stronger state of sobriety. While there are triggers everywhere, one of the most powerful protective factors against substance use is a strong, positive social network. You and other loved ones can be just that and make a big difference.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.