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Achieving and maintaining recovery from an addiction is a long-term process. It requires dedication and a solid understanding of how to set protective boundaries for yourself so that you can avoid setbacks. Understanding substance abuse triggers can be an important part of your recovery.

For a person who is navigating life in recovery, there can be certain physical and emotional cues, or triggers, that may cause them to start using substances again. While triggers do not always lead to relapse, they can produce intense urges that have the potential to negatively impact a person’s recovery.

Relapse is not uncommon in recovery, and for some, it can happen many times over. Learning to respond to triggers and cope with impulses to use drugs and alcohol is a crucial element of effective addiction treatment.

Types of Triggers

To safeguard yourself against relapse, it is important to identify personal triggers that may lead to substance abuse. Depending on a person’s experiences, the desire to use can be the result of certain environmental, emotional, and social factors.

There are two categories of triggers:

• Internal: emotional triggers that can include stress and emotions
• External: physical triggers that can include people, places, objects, and situations

Common Triggers of Substance Abuse & Ways to Avoid Them

Stress: Given the number of stressful situations a person may be confronted with, stress can be a leading cause of relapse and a trigger for many people. For those who have a history of using substances as a means of coping with stress, it can be an even greater threat.

Potential sources of stress may include:

• Health concerns
• Work pressures
• Strained relationships
• Death of a loved one
• Lack of time or money

Feelings: Heightened emotions can be overwhelming. When a person is unable to process feelings — whether they be positive, negative, or neutral — and manage reactions appropriately, they may turn to substance use as a coping mechanism.

Parties, holidays, and events may be risky situations for people who are triggered by positive emotions. Discussing temptations with a friend, family member, or therapist ahead of time can better prepare you to engage in social situations without feeling triggered. Positive feelings that could potentially be triggering include:

• Happiness
• Excitement
• Joy
• Passion
• Confidence

Negative feelings can be uncomfortable and may arise suddenly. Learning to evaluate your mood throughout the day and change your perspective can be a beneficial tactic. Practicing mindfulness and journaling can help you recognize emotional patterns and anticipate changes in mood before they occur. Negative feelings that might be triggering include:

• Guilt
• Fear
• Loneliness
• Anger
• Frustration
• Nervousness

An underestimated trigger can be hidden in plain sight as a neutral, or normal, feeling. These triggers prove that emotions do not have to be powerful to cause someone to want to use drugs or alcohol. Neutral feelings that could make someone feel triggered include:

• Boredom
• Tiredness
• Indifference

Taking steps to proactively prevent stress is a form of self-care that can help minimize the pressures of daily life. Lifestyle changes, such as establishing a daily routine, practicing healthy eating habits, exercising regularly, improving time management, and creating a budget, can help you maintain productivity and reduce stress.

Overconfidence in recovery: It is easy for a person to become overconfident in their ability to abstain from substance use, especially if they have been in recovery for an extended amount of time. However, the truth is that addiction is a chronic disease, and relapse can occur at any point on a person’s recovery journey.

Setting realistic expectations for yourself is an important part of maintaining recovery. Resisting any temptation to use drugs or consume alcohol is the safest way to navigate recovery. While it is impossible to eliminate stress from your life entirely, you can learn ways to manage it by working with a therapist to identify major sources of stress and tactics for coping.

While setting boundaries for yourself and taking inventory of your feelings are constructive practices for avoiding triggers in daily life, they are not the only ways to cope. If you feel that you need help resisting temptations, you should reach out to a qualified professional.

About Keystone Recovery Center

Located in Canton, South Dakota, Keystone Treatment Center is a trusted source of residential treatment and outpatient programming for adolescents and adults who have been struggling with substance use disorders, compulsive gambling, and certain co-occurring mental health concerns. The facility, which opened in 1973, offers a variety of specialty programs, including focused treatment tracks for Native Americans, military members and veterans, and patients who wish to have Christian values and principles incorporated into their care. To learn more, please visit

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