James Haggerty Recovery
Recovery Tips

How to Cope with Triggers and Avoid Relapse

August 19, 2021
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Cope with Triggers and Avoid RelapseCoping with triggers can be one of the trickiest parts of the recovery process. Triggers can come on suddenly, and the emotions that they stir up are often intense. Every person on a recovery journey will experience something that triggers them along the way. Triggers can bring a person back into an emotional state they were in before recovery. This can be very problematic for someone in recovery because it can make them want to use again.

During my road on my recovery journey, I learned to identify my own triggers, and I truly believe that this helped me stay sober. If I had not put in so much work to learn about myself, what triggers me, and how to proactively deal with those triggers, I believe that I would have relapsed or been in an extended relapse state.  Remember “ Relapse is a Process not necessarily an event”  I feel blessed that I had the patience with myself, and a strong support system, so that I could work my way through some of the most dangerous parts of my continued  recovery journey.

What Is A Trigger?

Put simply, a trigger is an emotional response to something that has happened previously. Triggers evoke an emotional response in a person, related to their memories. Often, people who have lived through trauma have triggers that cause them to remember and feel the emotions they did when the original trauma happened. For example, a certain smell might remind someone of a traumatic experience and smelling that scent again later can trigger emotions.  Just recently Simone Biles pulled out of Olympic events because she claimed something triggered her and she felt she was not mentally prepared for the high degree of difficulty her profession required.  Everyone deals with triggers and life happening that can disrupt the flow of life, every day.

In the case of someone recovering from substance abuse disorders, a trigger is anything that makes the person want to use again. Triggers are unique to every person, and there is no one trigger that will affect everyone the same.

In addiction recovery, there are generally two types of triggers that are referred to. These are internal triggers and external triggers.

Internal Triggers

Internal TriggersInternal triggers come from inside a person, and they can be a powerful force that can cause relapse. It is a common misconception that if someone has enough willpower or they are strong enough, then they won’t have internal components that will challenge sobriety. The truth is that internal triggers will happen, and refusing to confront them and deal with them will leave someone in a very vulnerable position.

Some internal triggers are listed below:


Emotional triggers are often tricky for someone recovering from addiction to deal with because that person often used substances to cope, or to try to forget these emotions.

Before I was in recovery, I often used alcohol to try and let go of my relationship problems with my family, and to just have a good time. Even as my personal relationships were struggling, I used drinking as an attempt to escape negative feelings.  I also used alcohol to help with panic attacks that I had when triggered by situations.

Once I got clean, I would find myself confronted with negative emotions that I would so often use alcohol to get away from. When problems arose within my family or at work , I felt the same negative emotions as before, only this time I no longer had the alcohol to cope. Boy, did I ever want to have a drink to cope! It was a whole new territory for me to have to deal with emotions instead of trying to escape them. I felt very vulnerable and not in control, it scared me.


There are many different thoughts that can trigger a person in recovery, but all of them can lead to relapse if not handled correctly. One common trigger for a person is negative self-talk. A person may rationalize that they are a bad person through negative thoughts, and therefore relapse, because they do not feel they are worth saving.

Sometimes a familiar setting or familiar weather will cause someone to have thoughts of using again. For example, watching a football game may make someone crave a beer because they’ve always drank beer while watching football. In this case, a Sunday football game would be a trigger for that person.


Memories are often the most powerful triggers a person in recovery must deal with. Memories are always tied to emotions, and these emotions can cause a person to want to use again. This is often associated with negative memories, such as someone dealing with trauma. The first impulse for a recovering person is to use substances to dull the emotions tied to trauma, or to try to forget altogether.

It is important to note, however, that not all memories that trigger are negative. For example, someone who made happy memories drinking with a loved one may remember those happy times, and this may trigger the desire for a drink.

External Triggers

External TriggersExternal triggers happen from outside the body, but just like internal ones, they make a person want to use again.

Some examples of external triggers are:


One example of an external trigger can be a smell. A certain smell can bring up memories of the past, and as I discussed earlier, memories are some of the most powerful triggers.


Specific places can bring up powerful memories from the past, and even just looking at the picture of a place may be enough to trigger someone with a strong emotional attachment to that place.


Believe it or not, music is a common external trigger. Music is always intertwined with memories and emotions. Music can remind us of certain times and places in our life. It can remind you of your wedding day, when you went through a bad breakup, or a party you went to in college.

Other Common External Triggers

An external trigger can be almost anything.

Some of the more common ones people often tell me about include:

  • Tastes
  • Sounds
  • People
  • Past or current relationships
  • Art
  • Movies
  • Television shows
  • Stores and shopping malls
  • Restaurants
  • Casinos
  • A special date
  • A holiday or season
  • Photographs

Why Is Identifying Triggers Important?

Identifying triggers is important because once you understand what your unique, personal triggers are; you can make a plan for how to deal with them. Identifying triggers is not always easy and you should remind yourself to be kind to yourself and remember that this is a process to work through. Everyone goes at a different pace.

For me, one of my triggers is being on a golf course. Enjoying drinks with my friends while golfing always went hand in hand. The first time I walked out on the golf course after rehab, I was surprised to find that the smells and sounds of the course made me want to drink so bad. I soon learned to identify golfing as a trigger, and I made a plan on how to deal with it.  I had to stay away from the golf course for years and my first time back on the course was an AA fundraiser in Upstate NY!

What Is The Difference Between a Trigger And A Craving?

The Difference Between a Trigger And A CravingIt is important to note the difference between a trigger and a craving. A craving is a physical feeling of want for drugs, alcohol, or any other thing a person was addicted to. When a craving happens there is a mental, and often physical, urge to start using again.

Triggers, on the other hand, are more complex. They are more associated with feelings and emotions than actual physical cravings for the drug or alcohol itself.

How Do You Deal With Triggers?

Coping with triggers is one of the most important steps of recovery to prevent a relapse. I find as well today that a relapse behavior might present itself to me by being in a bad mood, moodiness or being in a funk.  There are many ways that a person in recovery from addiction can deal with triggers head on and make sure they won’t lead them off your healing path. Every person has coping methods unique to themselves, and through self-reflection and guidance from the support systems around you, can help you best determine what yours will be. I always call someone, always. My support group, my group of friends that I have, always makes sure we are there for each other. Oftentimes it’s just having someone listen to me.

Some methods of coping I have utilized include going for a hike or walk. I personally know that getting outside in the outdoors, and therefore, outside of your own head, can be a very helpful means of coping with triggers.

I knew a young person in rehab who found that journaling helped her identify the most powerful triggers in her life. It helped her sort through the emotions by getting them down on paper.

Another person I met in the meetings, a young man named Ben, found that meditating helped him clear out the cravings to drink that were brought on by some of his internal triggers. While some other people didn’t find meditating helpful, Ben excelled at making it work for him.

Other ways of coping, people have found successful, include positive thinking, exercise, yoga, calling their sponsor, or even sponsoring others.

Making a Relapse Prevention Plan

Identifying triggers is so important because once someone in recovery can articulate what they are; they can incorporate them into a relapse prevention plan. You may think of this as being proactive in your recovery and being prepared if a trigger happens (and sooner or later it will). You have steps already in place to deal with it in positive ways other than using again.

Using HALT

Using HALT

One of the ways that people deal with triggers and prevent relapses is taking a moment and reminding themselves to HALT. Sometimes, when our basic needs are not being met, it can lead to a relapse. HALT is a simple but powerful way to make sure that people, as individuals, are getting what they need. HALT stands for ‘Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and Tiredness.’

Let’s look more closely at each of these.

H: Hunger

Sometimes something as simple as preventing hunger can help someone from relapsing. It might not be enough to eat food, but to also eat food with nutritional value. It might seem a bit simplistic, but not getting your basic need to feed hunger met, can have disastrous effects.

A: Anger

Everyone feels angry sometimes, and for someone on the path to recovery, anger can hit you at unexpected times and show itself in surprising ways. A person recovering from addiction is often mad at themselves for getting into the situation in the first place. It is important to focus on how you are handling the anger, and to express it in ways that are productive.

L: Loneliness

When loneliness sets in, it can cause cravings for the addictive substances that has brought one into recovery in the first place. HALT can help you in recovery by reflecting and being honest with yourself if you are lonely. If you are feeling this way, it is time to reach out to your support system. Visiting with a friend or loved one, going to a support group meeting, or even getting out and going to a coffee shop, can help you when you’re feeling isolated from the world.

T: Tiredness

When our body gets tired, it is primed for negative thoughts to come into our heads, and it is easier to abandon prevention plans, for a quick fix. Rest and sleep is necessary for healthy living as it affects both our body and mind. Sometimes a quick nap or even deep breathing can help combat tiredness until we’re able to get into bed at night.

I know that triggers can be very powerful, but they are just road bumps on your journey to recovery, not obstacles that you can’t overcome.

Living with an incurable disease such as addiction is a heavy lifelong opportunity! The truth is, many people will relapse. And, relapse is a natural detour in many people’s recovery journey, there is no shame in it. It’s what you do next that matters.

Read my previous post for more on Addiction Relapse.

As always, stay strong.




James Haggerty

A Time to Heal: Family Interventions offers personalized SUD Interventions, Addiction Recovery Planning, Case Management, Sober Companionship and Family Support. Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.

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