The Triggering Effect: How to Manage Yours

September 27, 2022

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Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Welsey Gallagher

If you’re in recovery from addiction, you know it takes much more than just willpower to stay on track. Recovery is a lifelong journey of learning and discovery about yourself that requires deep healing, as well as an arsenal of coping mechanisms to get you through the daily struggles of sobriety.

“Willpower alone is not a defense against relapse,” says Dr. Claudia Black, Meadows Senior Fellow and clinical architect of the Claudia Black Center, in a piece titled “The Triggering Effect.” Instead, “Recovery is achieved, maintained, and enjoyed through a series of actions.” One of those actions is coping with addiction relapse triggers.

Relapse Triggers Explained

So, what are relapse triggers? And what can you do to anticipate them in order to de-escalate their power when you encounter them?

A trigger is a memory, behavior, thought, or situation that jeopardizes recovery and signals that you are teetering on the edge of relapse.

Dr. Black writes that a trigger is a memory, behavior, thought, or situation that jeopardizes recovery and signals that you are teetering on the edge of relapse. Relapse triggers often have a strong sensory connection (sight, sound, taste, or smell) or are linked to a deeply ingrained habit. These triggers, usually things you associate with substance use, can put you at risk of relapse by drawing you back into the mindset you were in when you were still using.

Dr. Black outlines five common relapse triggers that those in recovery can encounter:

  • Romanticizing

Romanticizing is the act of focusing only on the positive feelings associated with addictive behaviors. There will be times when you think back on your addiction and only remember it fondly, forgetting all the negative impacts it had on your life. While this is not uncommon, it is a dangerous, slippery slope into relapse behaviors.

  • Feelings

Drugs and alcohol are often used to escape and numb emotions, so the removal of that coping mechanism can be extremely difficult. In recovery, you learn how to tolerate your emotions without self-medicating or engaging in self-destructive behaviors. However, old habits die hard, so when strong emotions come up in recovery, they can act as relapse triggers.

  • Loss

By the time you get to recovery, you’ve likely experienced multiple losses, whether during a traumatic childhood or in the midst of your addiction. Maybe you lost relationships due to your self-destructive behaviors, or loved ones may have lost their lives to addictions. Other losses include the loss of a career or good health. Reminders of these hurts can be triggering.

  • Resentments

While resentment is a feeling, Dr. Black believes it warrants its own place on the list of common triggers. Resentment is the result of unrealistic expectations coupled with impatience, leading to unhealthy assumptions about other people’s actions. When someone says or does something, fear or insecurity may lead you to assume the worst about them, which can cause resentment. If you don’t let go of lingering resentment, it will continue to pop up and be triggering.

  • People, Places, and Situations

As a recovering addict, you will encounter certain people, places, and situations that are triggering. Whether it’s a difficult loved one, a bar you used to frequent, or an emotionally-charged family gathering, it’s important to know which people, places, and situations are high-risk for you and your recovery efforts.

While this list is not exhaustive, many addiction relapse triggers you experience will fall into one of these categories.

Coping Skills for Relapse Triggers

The first step in dealing with relapse triggers and developing coping skills for them is identifying your triggers. Go through the list above and think through what specific people, places, feelings, or situations tempt you to relapse. You may need to take some time to pay attention to your emotions and when you start to feel the urge to use. Note the circumstances when this happens, and look for what activated the temptation.

Next, make a plan for what you will do when you encounter triggers. While avoiding them is helpful, it won’t always be possible, so you need to know what actions you will take when you find yourself facing one. Often just pausing and noticing that you’re feeling triggered can be enough to bring you down from it. However, there may be times when you need to remove yourself from a situation or call a trusted friend for emotional support.

Self-care is another great way to arm yourself against triggers. The better you feel emotionally, mentally, and physically, the more likely you will be able to handle temptations when they come. And of course, staying on track with your recovery plan and any therapy or support groups is a must.

The better you feel emotionally, mentally, and physically, the more likely you will be able to handle temptations when they come.

Help When You Need It

The most important aspect to remember when it comes to triggers is that relapse is not a sign of failure, and it should not cause you to give up on your recovery. Relapse is a common part of recovery, and it can even help you learn more about yourself and your triggers.

If you or someone you love needs help on the recovery journey, the Claudia Black Young Adult Center has the resources to support you. Our research-backed therapeutic model gets to the core of addiction and the trauma underlying it, allowing you to achieve lasting healing. Reach out today to learn more.