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Triggers in Early Recovery

In early recovery from drug/alcohol addictions, as with other addictions as well, there are things that “trigger” the recovering addict into thinking that may result in relapse behavior. From one addict to the next, these things will have similarities as well as differences, depending upon the person and the addiction.

Examples of situations or items that may trigger a relapse to alcohol use/abuse would be a time of day when the recovering addict would normally have their first cocktail or a time of day when they would begin their drinking behavior if a consistent pattern had been established. Another might be seeing a commercial on television portraying a particular favorite brand of wine, beer or alcohol. Scenes of drinking behaviors in movies or portrayed on television could also trigger that response, as well as certain objects that were significant in the drinking history of someone, such as a favorite martini glass or shot glass. Other triggers for recovering addicts can be the smell of a favorite beverage or driving by a bar or liquor store that was a favorite during their drinking days. Even driving in the same neighborhood or on the same street may bring up memories that are uncomfortable and difficult to contain.

For recovering addicts who used/abused drugs, it may be just as simple to be triggered by events or by seeing certain objects that are reminders of the old ways and behaviors. In those instances, it can be a lighter that was used for smoking marijuana, or a match strike that smells of sulphur for an addict who used matches to “cook” their drugs before injecting them with a syringe. The sounds of certain types of music can act as a trigger, as can many types of sensory stimuli they are not aware of until they encounter them in a new environment and feel the tug of the old days pulling them back into the addictive behavior.

Relapse prevention is an important factor in treatment for addictions. Without an open awareness of what some of their triggers may be, addicts are left unprepared for meeting and working through those triggers without relapsing into behaviors or even ways of thinking that are going to prevent them from successful abstinence. It is the same parts of the brain that will figure largely into their recovery that are heavily inundated with these types of sensory stimulus. Key to recovery being successful is that they uncover and have contingency plans available for these moments when they are hit hard with old sights, smells, sounds and situations that were inviting for them during that time of life and in those circumstances. It is important for the addicts in recovery to have back up plans available so they can be on guard to the triggers and then to walking away without succumbing to the temptations that will arise when those triggers are met.

Relationships with other recovering persons can be priceless in these situations; because they will inform the newly-recovering addict about how they met and overcame similar circumstances and validate the feelings that come up. A misconception that most newly-recovering addicts have is that the knowledge they have gained about their addiction is adequate to keep them from relapse. This is not the case. When those triggers are met and encountered unawares, they have powerful pull on every addict, whether they have knowledge about their addiction or not. So when they learn that they are not alone in fighting off the temptations faced with those triggers, they have a stronger weapon with which to resist.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.

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