STUDY: Person-Specific Triggers Pose the Highest Risk for Relapse

By As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Rudolph C. Hatfield, Ph.D. specializes in assessing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Sober Recovery Expert Author

Identifying which of the recovering addict’s substance abuse triggers are being overlooked by treatment providers, friends and other 12-step group members is crucial in developing an effective recovery program.

Based on a recent study published by the Society for the Study of Addiction, situations, people or objects uniquely relevant to a person’s drug or alcohol abuse have greater impact on the recovering addict’s tendency to relapse, as compared to generally recognized elements they are taught to avoid.

Individuals in recovery often struggle with cravings. A recent study looks at the type of triggers that can produce or intensify cravings and increase the risk of relapse.

Cues, or “triggers,” consist of various types of stimuli in the environment that prompt a particular behavior or increase the risk of a certain type of response.

Some cues can affect a large number of people in a number of ways. One example of a general cue setting off a reaction is public speaking which can set off anxiety in some people. Other cues, however, may be personally relevant and are specific only to one individual. The aforementioned study looks at how cues, both general and specific, affect recovering addicts’ cravings for substances such as drugs and alcohol.

A Closer Look

Drs. Melina Fatseas and Fuschia Serre, along with other authors, investigated the behaviors of 132 outpatient individuals being treated for alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or opiate addiction. Using mobile technologies, participants were questioned four times a day regarding their drug or alcohol cravings, as well as the types of cues that produced or were associated with them.

Researchers then categorized the reported intensity of each person’s cravings under general substance-specific cues and person-specific cues. General substance-specific cues, for instance, would be a heroin addict seeing a syringe. On the other hand, person-specific cues would include a meeting with a specific person whom a participant had traditionally used their substance of choice with.

Findings suggest that only person-specific cues were associated with the reported increase in cravings over the hours of the day. While general cues were also reported to set off cravings, the participants’ desires tend to dissipate. Person-specific cues, however, were linked to an ever-increasing intensity of cravings among the participants. This concludes that person-specific cues produce a much more robust effect on a person’s drug or alcohol craving than more general substance-specific cues.

The Takeaway

This information is extremely helpful for individuals recovering from some type of substance abuse disorder because they can now exercise more vigilance to remain on the path of recovery.

A recovering addict can take an inventory of person-specific situations or cues that he/she considers as a personal trigger. This may be comprised of certain people, environments and even things like particular songs or movies. Perhaps it will even include going to a favorite bar, arguing with a spouse, getting off work on a Friday or bowling with friends.

Through this list, it will be easier for those in recovery to recognize relapse triggers when they pop up, understand their own reactions and take the necessary steps to stay in control.

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