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Substance Abuse Triggers

The term addiction trigger can refer to anything that reminds a person of their addiction. Triggers are conditioned, meaning the brain has made a link between these triggers and substance abuse.

7 Minute Read | Published Oct 06 2023 | Updated Jul 03 2024 Expert Verified
Emma Collins
Written by
Dr. Ash Bhatt
Reviewed by
Emma Collins
Written by
Dr. Ash Bhatt
Reviewed by

Identifying and Coping with Triggers in Addiction

For example, if a person has gotten used to consuming alcohol during social gatherings, then attending a social event may urge them to drink, even though they have made a commitment to stay sober beforehand. If a person uses drugs to cope with loneliness, feeling this emotion may cause the person to once again crave the substance. Movie scenes that feature drinking or drug use can also be a trigger for some people.

Unlearning these triggers can pose quite a challenge, and a person who is recovering from addiction will need all the support they can get during this process. The first step in overcoming one’s triggers is getting to know them. Addiction triggers have many forms; they can be physical, psychological, social, or emotional. However, most of these triggers can be categorized into 2 types: external and internal. We’ll take a closer look at these below.

Ways to Cope with External Addiction Triggers

External triggers simply refer to factors outside one’s self that can cause the person to crave addictive substances and activities. People, places, objects, and activities can serve as external triggers. The person recovering from addiction can plan to stay away from these triggers in order to minimize the chances of relapse. Among the external triggers that can remind a recovering person of their destructive lifestyle are:


Maintaining a relationship with people who continue to abuse alcohol and drugs can make it difficult for a recovering person to stay sober. Substance-abusing family members and friends may pressure the person in recovery to again partake in addictive behaviors, and the person may be tempted to participate in fear of being alienated by the group. At the same time, staying with family and friends who are not aware of how they can negatively impact the progress of a person in recovery can be harmful. They may offer a person in recovery alcohol, thinking that it won’t do them any harm or get in the way of their treatment.

Examples of people who can serve as triggers include former drug dealers, spouses, friends, family members, employers and co-workers, and even neighbors.

A person in recovery can identify and avoid these external triggers by asking the following questions:

  • With whom did you use drugs or drink alcohol?
  • Who supplied you with these substances?
  • Do you still have the contact details of these people?
  • If they are still drinking or using drugs, how should you approach them?


Some places can serve as a reminder of a recovering person’s former lifestyle. This can include locations where they used to partake in drugs and alcohol, places where they felt isolated or abused, or even neighborhoods where substance-abusing family members and friends live.

Some of the common examples of triggering locations are former drug-stash spots, clubs and bars, concert venues, worksites, a friend’s home, bathrooms, hotels, and schools.

If in doubt whether or not a certain location can be a trigger, it’s a good idea to ask the following questions:

  • Where did you drink alcohol or use drugs in the past?
  • Do you pass by these locations as you go about your daily tasks?
  • How can you avoid these locations?
  • If you encounter anyone that offers you alcohol or drugs, how should you react?


Certain situations can also serve as external triggers. These can be high-stress situations or events that call for a celebration. Holidays, for example, can be a time of merriment for many. However, for a person recovering from addiction, this can also mean attending social events and interacting with friends and family members who are still using drugs or being in places where they’ll be constantly exposed to addictive substances. Paydays can also be a trigger to people who used to spend their salary on drugs, and people may be in more danger of relapsing during this particular time.

Common situations that can serve as triggers include parties, recovery group meetings, holidays, family gatherings, and calls from creditors. At the same time, there are also activities and behaviors that can serve as triggers. This can include staying alone at home, driving, before or after a date, after paying one’s bills, and eating out.

These are questions one should ask if faced with a potentially triggering situation:

  • Is there an upcoming event, like a holiday or concert, that can serve as a trigger?
  • Does your current situation spark an urge to use addictive substances?
  • Does your current situation force you to think about substance abuse?
  • Would it be possible to leave or avoid the situation entirely?


Being around items associated with addiction can also trigger a person’s urge to drink alcohol or use drugs. After one has committed to living a sober life, it’s advised that the person should also part with objects that they associate with addiction. One of the first things they should do is get rid of drug paraphernalia. At the same time, they should also be wary about keeping everyday items that they frequently used while they were at the peak of their addiction disorder. This can include furniture and reading materials like books and magazines.

Here are a few questions that can help people identify and eliminate objects that can serve as triggers:

  • What items did you use with alcohol or drugs?
  • Do you have a sober friend or family member that can help you get rid of the triggers in your home or at work?
  • How soon can your sober friend or family member collect the items that remind you of your former lifestyle?

Internal Addiction Triggers

Internal triggers refer to emotions and thoughts that were formerly associated with addiction, and these can be much more challenging to manage compared to external triggers. When these feelings or thoughts arise, it’s difficult to distance one’s self from them, and they may urge a recovering person to make decisions and engage in activities that will have a negative effect on their recovery.

Internal triggers can be positive emotions like happiness, passion, sexual arousal, or confidence. They can also be negative emotions like fear, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, anger, or feelings of inadequacy. Even normal feelings like boredom, embarrassment, or tiredness can bring about cravings and urges if the person has come to associate these with substance abuse and addictive behaviors.

It’s important to take note of these emotions and thoughts so that the person in recovery can be more aware of their internal triggers. This can be done by asking how they felt right before they used addictive substances and how they felt as they were under the influence of the substance.

When faced with an internal trigger, a person in recovery can ask the following questions to manage the thought or emotion:

  • How can I change this feeling or behavior?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of this behavior?
  • What types of behaviors are healthier than the one I’m having right now?
  • What are the benefits and risks of reaching out to family or friends?

It is helpful to get in touch with people who can offer you support and encouragement as you confront and manage these thoughts and emotions.

Dealing with Addiction Relapse

Being exposed to a trigger does not necessarily mean that a person will immediately resort to using drugs or alcohol. People who have made a commitment to living a sober life will actively fight these urges, but their brain may find ways to justify using the substance once more.

They can go through different stages of relapse. The first stage, emotional relapse, is characterized by developing negative behaviors as a means to combat thoughts and feelings. The second stage, mental relapse, refers to the prolonged struggle between the urge to use addictive substances and knowing that giving in can lead to relapse. The final stage, physical relapse, happens when the person starts using drugs or drinking alcohol again.

Around 40 to 60 percent of people who are recovering from addiction may relapse at least once. Chronic illnesses like addiction often require several rounds of treatment before they can be managed properly, so a relapse shouldn’t be treated as a sign of failure. However, using drugs or alcohol again can have serious consequences, and it can even be fatal. As such, every effort must be taken to prevent people in recovery from relapsing.

Our team at Better Addiction Care is committed to making alcohol and drug treatments more accessible to people who are recovering from addiction. If you or a loved one needs help in finding effective treatment options for substance abuse disorders, give us a call at (800) 429-7690 so we can help you make informed decisions.


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