how to identify triggers

Identifying and Coping with Triggers in Recovery

Published on December 12, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

Addiction is a physical disease, but it also involves many complex psychological factors.  These factors are a large part of the reason addiction is so hard to overcome, and psychological work is usually necessary to achieve lasting recovery.  During and after treatment for addiction, individuals with substance use disorders need to identify emotional and physical cues that could put them at risk of relapse.  By identifying triggers, people in recovery can avoid people, places, and circumstances that may make them crave substances, and can also begin to establish a lifestyle more conducive to sobriety.  However, it is important to understand that triggers are an entirely normal part of recovery, and planning for triggering moments is just as critical to maintaining sobriety as avoiding them. 

Understanding Common Triggers

Triggers can be incredibly unique to the individual, so it is difficult to adequately arm each person in recovery against every possible trigger that might come their way.  There are, however, common triggers that most people in recovery experience at some time or another. Perhaps the most obvious trigger for people with substance use disorders is the substance itself.  For people addicted to illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine, avoiding exposure to the substance might mean building a new social circle and cutting ties with friends and acquaintances that continue to use.  For those with an addiction to prescription painkillers or alcohol, however, avoiding the substance might require more vigilance. In some instances, trigger avoidance is not possible, such as when going to a restaurant where alcohol is served.  In these cases, it is important to prepare for exposure to triggers with strategies and techniques focused on easing anxiety and preventing relapse.  

In addition to exposure to the substance itself, common triggers include certain times of the day or week associated with using, extreme stress, fatigue, moments associated with celebration, and being in pain or feeling physically unwell.  While many of these triggers can be prevented to some extent by taking care of yourself physically and emotionally, some triggers, such as the weekend, are inevitable. While unsettling, these types of triggers tend to become less intense with time, and eventually become unproblematic altogether.  

Listening to Your Body

Triggers tend to create an initial sense of anxiety before developing into a craving, and anxious thoughts can have very physical symptoms.  For example, you may find that when you are being triggered by something in your environment, such as a nearby bar or a pill bottle, you begin to feel tightness in your chest or stomach, or a nervous energy resonate throughout your body.  These experiences can be so subtle they almost go unnoticed without intentional intuition, or they can become so extreme that you fall into a full-blown panic attack. Just as with other aspects of life that pose a threat to your safety or wellbeing, your brain and body are hardwired to warn you with enough advance notice to change your course of action.  Listening to the physical cues of your body can clue you into a potential trigger before you are even logically aware of its presence or the effect it may have on your recovery.

Becoming the Observer of Your Thoughts

A common technique used in mindfulness and meditation is to become the observer of your own thoughts, meaning that instead of identifying with each thought that passes through your mind, you distance yourself by watching the thoughts come and go without emotionally responding.  Watching your thoughts in a triggering situation can help you to step back from the experience and objectively identify what is triggering you and how you can change it. For example, if you find yourself becoming lost in memories of using or starting to plan how you might obtain drugs or alcohol, you can choose to take a step back from those thoughts and ask yourself what about your environment or circumstances is causing them to arise.  In observing your thoughts, you can also consciously recognize that thoughts do not necessarily have to become action, and thoughts and emotions surrounding substance abuse are normal in recovery. By keeping in mind that these thoughts will eventually subside, you can use these moments as a tool to identify triggers and adjust accordingly going forward.

Responding to Triggers

The best way to create a plan of action for when you inevitably encounter triggers is to discuss as many potential triggers as possible with a professional, such as a therapist or addiction counselor, and remain vigilant in your recovery by caring for your physical and mental health.  Returning to work and home life after treatment for addition is a difficult adjustment for many people in recovery, but by utilizing every resource and making a plan, lasting sobriety is possible.

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.  We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships.  By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.