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Triggers and Signs of Relapse

Understanding Triggers

Everyone has their own set of triggers: situations, people, and things that can lead to uncomfortable cravings or even a return to substance abuse. Painful emotions such as depression, anxiety and frustration can be difficult to bear, and the urge to numb these feelings can be strong.

Many recovering individuals end up using again as a way to cope with unpleasant feelings; it doesn’t take long to find yourself sliding back into your old addictive behaviors.

Specific relapse triggers vary from person to person, but there are certain factors that tend to be universal among recovering addicts:

  • Emotional factors – depression, anxiety, stress, frustration, boredom, and other emotions can be difficult to handle, and the desire to numb painful feelings can be strong. Many recovering addicts end up using drugs or alcohol again as a coping mechanism.
  • Being around people and situations that remind clients of using can trigger cravings. It can be difficult to get together with old friends if you used to drink or use together.
  • Parties and events where people are drinking are also tough to endure, especially in the early months of recovery.

Certain moods and behaviors can be a sign of a relapse:

  • Secretiveness
  • Spending time with friends or associates you’ve used with in the past or suppliers of substances
  • Spending time in places you once used or places centered on using such as wild parties
  • Moodiness, mood swings
  • Lack of proper grooming habits
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits
  • Romanticizing past times of use
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Discontinuing participation in recovery activities such as support group meetings

Developing Awareness

The first step in avoiding relapse triggers is to recognize them. Some triggers are easy to identify. Going to bars, parties or even certain homes may bring back memories and sensory experiences that remind you of using. Social triggers aren’t hard to spot either. Getting together with a fellow drinker or user or running into a former significant other can spark the urge to use again.

The most difficult triggers to identify are emotional in nature. Underlying emotional issues can be hard to recognize in yourself, so it’s important to keep close tabs on your emotional state in order to manage your triggers.

Pink Cloud Syndrome

Early recovery can be a treacherous time that requires constant vigilance to stay on track and battle intense cravings or feelings of loss. For some, this time is marked by feelings of euphoria and palpable excitement. Recovery feels like the best thing in the world, and it seems like there’s nothing that could make you want to use again, ever. In Alcoholics Anonymous, this is known as Pink Cloud Syndrome, and it’s important to understand that these feelings of confidence—sometimes overconfidence—can lead to being blindsided by a relapse.

It feels wonderful to finally be free of an addiction that led to so many problems in your life, but maintaining full engagement in your recovery plan is crucial for success, even if you don’t feel it’s necessary. Putting in the hard work to address underlying issues and begin to clean up the messes you left in your wake is all par for the recovery course. But if you’re living on a pink cloud, you may feel that you don’t really need all the bells and whistles in order to stay sober. You may even think you can continue hanging out with friends who still use without incident because you know in your heart that you’ll never use again. Overconfidence dramatically increases your risk of relapse. You’re not focused on developing strategies to prevent relapse, and you aren’t working through the critical issues that led to the addiction. You aren’t being honest with yourself.

The pink cloud doesn’t last forever. When you realize that you still have the same old problems—financial troubles, intense cravings, lack of direction—and that the difficulty of recovery still looms large and foreboding, you can be thrown into a period of depression during which your risk of relapse is even higher. At that point, you may already be well on your way to using again, even if you don’t recognize the signs at first.