Substance addiction, also known as a substance use disorder, is a chronic condition. Its chronic nature means that addiction has lasting and persistent effects, and therefore requires ongoing care. Without continuing care, those in recovery are at a higher chance of relapse. Relapse means that a person returns to substance abuse after an attempt to stop. Certain factors (called “relapse triggers”) can prompt cravings and relapse.
As stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), relapse can be a part of the recovery process. However, “Relapse rates for drug use are similar to rates for other chronic medical illnesses,” like hypertension and diabetes. There are also treatments available to help with relapse prevention, and strategies to help you cope with common relapse triggers.
What are Relapse Triggers?
Relapse triggers are the causes or reasons for returning to drug abuse. A trigger can be anything – an item, place, person, or circumstance – that causes someone to drink or use drugs after a period of abstinence. Scientists also call these “cues,” which trigger your brain to think about drug use in certain situations or environments.
There are both internal and external relapse triggers. Common, internal relapse triggers have to do with emotions and mental health. They happen inside a person and spark a desire to use drugs. External relapse triggers, on the other hand, are outer factors like objects and places that prompt drug cravings.
What are the Most Common Relapse Triggers?
Below are the most common relapse triggers among young adults battling addiction, as well as tips for coping with each.
Studies show that stress is the leading cause of relapse for those battling substance addiction. People who are stressed often seek solace in drugs or alcohol, to relax or feel better temporarily. Science shows that stressful situations can trigger significant substance cravings, which are predictive of a future relapse.
If you or a loved one is in recovery, take steps to avoid overly stressful situations when you can. Reduce the factors in your life that are causing stress, such as finances or relationships, and find positive ways to manage your stress effectively, such as meditation or exercise.
- Negative Emotions.
Anger. Fear. Sadness. Loneliness. Shame. Grief. Jealousy. Exhaustion. Hunger. These are all difficult feelings that can trigger a relapse. When a person in recovery feels uncomfortable, he or she may turn back to what used to provide relief – drugs and alcohol.
If you are in recovery, it is important to recognize when you are experiencing these emotions and to honor them. Take a moment to understand why you are feeling this way, and to check-in with yourself. Then, take steps to cope with these emotions. What healthy steps can you take to feel better? This may come in the form of journaling, praying, exercising, creating, or simply chatting with a friend.
- Celebratory Emotions.
Negative emotions are common relapse triggers, but positive feelings can also stir up drug cravings. Too often, when it comes time to celebrate something or someone, we turn to alcohol or drugs to turn the party up. However, it is important to recognize that you do not need drugs or alcohol to have fun.
For those in recovery, ask yourself what else you can do to celebrate in times of joy. Rather than throwing a raging, black-out birthday party, why don’t you go for an adventure or spend the day doing something active, that you enjoy? Rather than grabbing a drink to celebrate a job promotion, why don’t you plan for dinner at a nice restaurant, instead?
Boredom is a common cause of relapse. When people have too much time on their hands or do not know what to do with their time, they may choose to spend it drinking or getting high. Prior to recovery, that is exactly what they did. They spent most of their time seeking, using, and recovering from the drug. Like boredom, isolation is another common relapse trigger. It can lead a person into a negative spiral of thoughts and emotions, which can bring up bad drug cravings.
Now, perhaps more than ever, isolation and boredom are at a peak. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people in recovery to stay home and isolate themselves from friends. If you or a loved one is in this circumstance, consider creating a schedule to follow each day. This might involve cooking, exercising, going for a walk, taking a class, or participating in a support group.
- Untreated Mental Health Disorders.
Mental health disorders, and the difficult symptoms they cause, are extremely common relapse triggers. However, they are not always evident. Many people struggling with mental health conditions do not talk about their symptoms or try to get help. They may try to cope in their own way, which often involves drinking or using drugs. Those recovering from addiction who never received treatment for their mental illness are likely to self-medicate with substances.
For those battling mental health disorders – depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, ADHD, or any others – it is important to get proper, professional treatment. The symptoms of mental illness can take a toll on your life and your ability to stay sober. Dual diagnosis treatment is recommended for those battling substance use and mental disorders.
When a person is recovering from substance addiction, they typically go through a period of withdrawal. Withdrawal comes after a person has used drugs regularly or for a long period of time, then stops. The body, now reliant on drugs, has to learn to function without. Withdrawal is often associated with uncomfortable, difficult symptoms like nausea, fatigue, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and more.
When a person experiences withdrawal, they may turn back to alcohol or drugs to rid the pain. Their body is demanding the substance they are addicted to, and by using it, they can calm the body’s fight. For this reason, withdrawal is a very common relapse trigger.
It is recommended that those in early recovery go to a professional treatment center where they can safely withdraw from drugs. Many drug treatment centers are equipped with medical professionals who can monitor and ease withdrawal symptoms, to help prevent a relapse.
- Difficult or Unsupportive Relationships.
People struggling with drug abuse often surround themselves with other people who drink and use drugs. In recovery, however, this can pose many challenges. Being around people who are drinking and using drugs can be a significant relapse trigger. It can also create situations of peer pressure, if they are not supportive of your recovery. If you have friendships with people who are drinking or using, be sure to avoid hanging out with them when there might be drugs or alcohol.
Additionally, stressful or toxic relationships can also trigger a relapse. If there is a person in your life that makes you feel bad or causes you regular stress, consider stepping back from that relationship. In recovery, you must make an effort to prioritize your own self and well-being and, sometimes, that means cutting ties with people who bring you down.
- Things or Places that Remind You of Using.
Just like people can trigger cravings for drugs, so can places or objects that remind you of drinking and drug-using days. This can be something simple, like walking by the bar you used to sneak into or smelling cigarette smoke on the street. A trigger could even be a college dorm room or apartment where you used to hang out. It is normal for these seemingly little things to add up to big cravings and a desire to use drugs again.
In recovery, it is important to build new memories and find new places that you can associate with positivity. When you come across an item or place that triggers nostalgic feelings, or drug cravings, try to associate them with all the detrimental outcomes of your addiction. It is easy to remember the “good times” of your past, but make an effort to remind yourself why you are here today.
- Over-Confidence in Sobriety or Success.
When a person feels confident or successful in their recovery from addiction, it can (surprisingly) lead back to substance abuse. A person might feel as though “one time won’t hurt” because they have come so far. They may feel they are beyond their addiction, or beyond the drug cravings.
Similarly, when a person in recovery starts to get their life back in order, they may feel confident enough to drink or use again. They may have landed a great job, found a great place to live, or even gotten into a great college. With these successes, they may feel like they once again have control.
The truth is, addiction is chronic. As strong and as healthy as a person, the lingering effects of addiction may still be at bay. Those in early recovery often get a boost of confidence and a false sense of “I’m cured!” However, addiction takes time and ongoing maintenance to overcome. It is important to recognize that this is a continuous journey. You must continue to follow your treatment plan, with ongoing meetings and therapy, in order to maintain a successful recovery.
These are just some of the many relapse triggers that young adults commonly face, especially those who are early in the recovery process. For more guidance on handling and avoiding relapse triggers, please read our article: “How to Deal With Relapse Triggers.”
It is important to recognize that relapse does not mean you (or your loved one) has failed. It does not mean that your treatment program has failed. Rather, it indicates that treatment must be revised to meet your changing needs. People evolve over time, and situations can change at any point. If you or your loved one needs to revisit treatment after a drug relapse, we are here for you.
Turnbridge is a residential drug treatment center in Connecticut, with programs for young men, young women, and teens struggling with substance abuse. Contact 877-581-1793 to learn how we can help you get back on the road to recovery.