Understanding addiction triggers and how to avoid them

Published: 02/7/18

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Often the biggest challenge faced by recovering addicts, no matter the length of their sobriety, is the unpredictable onset of cravings. These sensations come and go without warning, and have a dastardly reputation for popping up at the most inconvenient moments.

But actually, those cravings may not be as random as you think, and by understanding what triggers them, you may find that it’s possible to dodge a few.

Triggers are different for everyone, and there’s some pretty interesting science behind how they burrow into the brain.

The amygdala is a part of the brain that stores our memories and associates them with emotions and experiences. For example, when you hear your phone ding, you know it’s time to see who texted you.

Similarly, the addicted brain associates unique environmental triggers with former addictive behaviors, reminding you that it’s time to get high. This can be, quite literally, anything from people and places that you see to smells and sounds you experienced regularly throughout your addiction. The more you repeated the addictive behavior in that particular environment, the more firmly that environmental cue is embedded into your brain.

So how can you avoid these triggers and, ultimately, the risk of relapse?

Truthfully, it’s impossible to avoid every trigger. But by identifying which triggers you can avoid, you can certainly make the recovery process a little bit easier.

Start by making a list of the things that you associate most with your specific addictive behavior. If you recall that certain friends, restaurants, movies, or even food appeared frequently during these times, make arrangements to avoid them at all costs. Realistically, you may not remember every potential environmental trigger, so expect to be exposed to additional triggers and add them to your list later on.

When you do run into trouble (and you will), make sure you have a plan.

Distract Yourself. No matter where you are or where you plan to be, know what distractions will be available to you in the event of a trigger. One pretty universal tool for occupying the mind during a craving is your phone. Get a few puzzle games or other apps that will keep you busy for a while. You could also read a book, do a crossword, or even count ceiling tiles.

Phone A Friend. Have your sponsor or a trusted (and sober) loved one on speed-dial to talk you through it.

Change Your Thought Process. Triggers are often associated with the positive feelings and emotions of past behaviors. When exposed to a trigger, repeatedly remind yourself of the negative implications of drug or alcohol use to alter your perspective.

Remember that you’re going to be battling triggers for a very long time, if not the rest of your life. Knowing how to cope with them is a critical part of recovery, but knowing how to avoid them, when possible, is always the safest bet.