One of the hardest things to face about the disease of addiction is that there isn’t really a cure. People can stop using. They can deal with dual disorders or other underlying issues to reduce their risk of using in the future.
But once a person has been addicted to alcohol or drugs, the risk of relapse lingers. This is true even after many years of sobriety, when the worst of the cravings seem to have faded into the background of their lives.
Research has shown that people in recovery commonly cite multiple factors as contributors to relapse. Those factors, also known as triggers, include stress, depression or other negative emotions, anxiety, boredom and difficulties at work or in relationships. Other triggers include being around people, places or activities that are reminders of past substance use.
Addictive disorders are chronic and relapsing in nature. To stay sober, recovery must be tended to, and protected, for many years and possibly for a lifetime. Here are some relapse triggers to watch out for, and ways to cope with them.
Addiction Relapse Triggers
Relapse Trigger #1: Remember to HALT
HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. These are feelings and emotions everyone experiences from time to time. For people in recovery, these negative psychological states can leave them more vulnerable to relapse.
Hunger can mean just that – needing food, preferably nourishment from a satisfying and healthy meal. But hunger can also refer to the need for comfort, love, understanding or personal connection. Going to a meeting, calling your sponsor, or getting together with a friend or family member who makes you laugh or feel cared can help alleviate this trigger.
Anger is a powerful and potentially destructive emotion. The good news is that the sort of anger that comes from a bad day at work or a negative interaction with an acquaintance usually dissipates relatively quickly. Taking a walk, taking deep breaths or doing any form of exercise or meditation can put you into a more relaxed state and get your mind off of it.
Deeper anger, such as resentment, rage or ongoing emotional distress caused by traumatic experiences, is another situation entirely. If you’re feeling resentment, rage or long-term anger, seek professional help to work through it.
Loneliness is another feeling that most people experience at times, whether you’re sitting home on a Friday night with nothing to do, find out your holiday plans have fallen through, or are experiencing disappointment in romantic relationships. These circumstances can be triggering for those vulnerable to substance use. It’s very important to stay connected, engaged and involved with people and activities you enjoy.
Being tired is another one of those normal feelings that is OK for short periods but potentially a major issue if it becomes chronic. Tired can mean literally sleep deprivation, a known trigger for relapse (see “lack of sleep” below). But tired can also mean feeling mentally exhausted, overwhelmed or overloaded by responsibilities, stress or worry. If you’re feeling like you just can’t take it anymore, call your sponsor or your therapist. They can provide that boost you need to help you resist any urges to use.
Relapse Trigger #2: Distancing yourself from a sober support system
Having a sponsor and going to community-based support meeting like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous is an important source of friendship and encouragement for individuals in recovery. Often before people take a drink or start to use again, they start subtly and then obviously moving away from those people who keep them accountable in their sobriety.
For individuals in recovery, purposefully isolating oneself can be a trigger. If you realize you’re pulling away, reach out for help – and be willing to accept help when people offer it to you.
Relapse Trigger #3: Lack of sleep
When people are using, they often have poor sleep habits. Even in early recovery, insomnia is very common. At RiverMend Health Centers, we work with patients on behavioral interventions to treat insomnia and restore healthy sleep hygiene. Research shows that a good night’s sleep can help prevent relapse, while not getting enough sleep can be a trigger for using. Not being able to sleep may prompt people to use drugs or alcohol to try to fall asleep, even though alcohol actually makes the problem worse.
Relapse Trigger #4: Overconfidence
People in recovery have changed in more ways than one. They’re no longer using. Ideally, they’ve also learned healthier lifestyle practices, more effective ways to communicate with family and friends, and ways to cope with the stresses of life. They may be experiencing significant success at school and in their careers. These are all wonderful accomplishments. But as time passes after the end of treatment, it can be easy to take the eye of the ball, to start to think that you can handle one drink, or that you no longer need to live by the structure and rules that have helped sustain recovery up until this point. This is known as overconfidence.
It’s important to be aware that overconfidence can lead people to believe that they can handle any situation, or potential trigger, without relapsing. Continue going to meetings or therapy. Stay committed to the recovery practices that have been working for you. If you notice yourself slipping or engaging in behavior that is potentially triggering, get back on track. Nothing is worth jeopardizing what’s taken so much hard work and commitment to achieve.