What is the secret to getting through trigger situations in early recovery from addiction? How do struggling alcoholics and drug addicts manage to maintain sobriety in the face of constant temptation? What can you actually do in order to protect yourself from the threat of relapse?
Let’s take a look at some of these questions and see what we can learn about relapse prevention.
Anything that makes you think of drinking or using drugs is a trigger. In early recovery this can be just about anything, because most of us who were addicted used any and every excuse in the book in order to justify our drinking and drug use. If it was a nice day, we wanted to drink and get high. If it was a lousy day out–same thing. Our whole life was a trigger in some ways.
But even if you feel that way, you can identify specific trigger situations if you really start to pay attention. For example, I realized pretty early in my recovery that when I was feeling sorry for myself this was a major trigger for me to want to drink or use drugs. Any time that I was the slightest victim of anything at all, I turned it into this big drama in my own mind so that I could justify more drinking and drug use. So it wasn’t necessarily a situation like “going past my favorite bar” but instead it was a feeling that I had got, the feeling of self pity. So when I was feeling that it was a big trigger for me, and I had to figure out how to deal with it.
You might have other triggers in your life that you are not even aware of. For a lot of people, boredom is a big trigger. For others it may be frustration. And nearly everyone is triggered to some degree by anger.
In some ways it is not the situation that is the trigger, but instead it is your emotional reaction inside that is the trigger. The external event out in the real world is not really the thing that triggers you. Instead it is your reaction to that thing. So we have to learn to watch our emotions and figure out what is really making us want to self medicate.
Will my triggers and urges ever go away completely?
Yes and no.
Yes, your triggers will go away to the extent that they are no longer an immediate threat to you, like they are in early recovery.
This has been my experience anyway.
If your triggers don’t go away to some extent then I would suggest that you still have some work to do in recovery. So if you are being triggered on a regular basis and it is causing you to come close to relapse then you have something to figure out. You have work to do.
On the other hand, every alcoholic and recovering addict will always have the potential to be triggered in the future. The craving never goes away completely and 100 percent. The disease is always going to linger to some degree. But I would argue that it should not be an immediate threat to your sobriety after you reach a certain point in recovery. You should work on your recovery and become stronger so that the triggers do not threaten to destroy you.
So the answer is yes, your triggers will go away eventually, if you actively work on your recovery. But it does take work, and it also takes time. You may have to be patient.
Avoiding dangerous situations which could lead to relapse
In very early recovery you need to have a two part strategy.
The first part is in avoiding trigger situations entirely. The second part is to become stronger so that you can better deal with them.
But make no mistake, in early recovery your goal should be to avoid triggers completely. There is nothing to be gained by exposing yourself to danger in early recovery.
Some people get this wrong. They believe that if they expose themselves to triggers in early recovery and they make it through without relapsing that this will make them stronger.
Never do this! Never deliberately test yourself in addiction recovery. There is no benefit to doing so. You don’t get stronger by exposing yourself to danger and to triggers.
Trust me, you will be tested plenty enough in the future. There is no need to invite trouble into your world.
Instead, what you want to do in early sobriety is to simply hold on (and not relapse) until the miracle happens. The miracle being that recovery eventually becomes much easier and you will also be experiencing massive benefits as a result of staying sober. It takes time for that miracle to happen and there will be plenty of opportunity for relapse along the way. Therefore you don’t want to go inviting temptation into your life in order to “test yourself.” It’s not worth it, and it is not a good strategy.
In traditional recovery they talk about avoiding “people, places, and things” that we used to associate with our addiction. I would also add “emotional states” on to that list. So in other words, if you tend to drink when you get really upset, then you need to also avoid situations that tend to make you upset. Not exactly rocket science, I know, but it still needs to be stated. You may need to figure out why you self medicated in order to make a plan to avoid those reasons and excuses.
I had certain excuses that I used in order to justify my drinking. One excuse was self pity. So I used self pity in order to make myself feel OK about my drinking. It did not actually cause me to drink, but I used it as a justification. There is a slight difference there and you need to be aware of it.
What were your justifications for drinking? Did you say “If people had my problems, they would drink too?” Did you say to yourself “I only drink a few beers every day.” Did you things like “I’m not hurting anyone when I drink.” Did you say “I deserve this because I work hard.” If you had excuses and justifications then you need to figure out what those were and then attack them for the lies that they are. Work through them. Get with a sponsor or a therapist in recovery and talk to them about what your justifications were. Figure out why they were wrong and how they were flawed.
My excuse was self pity. I felt like I was a victim, even when I really wasn’t. It was pathetic. And I used this in order to justify my drinking. But I had to see the truth, which was that the drinking was really only hurting myself. Furthermore, I was almost never really the victim. I just made it out to be that way in my mind. And even if someone had done me wrong, drinking to excess was not something that “I deserved” because of it. I was only hurting myself.
So I had to be able to identify that situation (self pity) and then come up with ways to avoid it.
Your trigger may be different and therefore you may need a different approach in order to avoid it. For self pity, I had to:
1) Become more aware of the problem, and start watching my emotional state to see if I was slipping into self pity mode.
2) Make an agreement with myself to not tolerate self pity at all, ever.
3) Learn how to shut it down when I noticed it, by switching my emotional state to one of gratitude instead of feeling sorry for myself.
4) Take actions every day in order to cultivate gratitude. I had to develop my “gratitude muscle.”
That was my solution and that was how I dealt with my biggest trigger in terms of avoiding it.
As I said, your triggers may be different from this. Maybe you want to drink every time you go to work, or every time you see your ex-husband, or every time you walk past the corner bar. There are solutions for all of those problems and more. It is simply a matter of figuring out what causes you to want to drink, and then developing a plan to counter it. You may need to ask for help and seek advice in order to learn how to overcome your triggers specifically.
Repeat: You may need to ask other people for help in order to learn how to overcome a trigger.
Strategies for dealing with triggers that you cannot avoid
Now in some cases there may be a particular trigger in your life that you cannot avoid.
For example, maybe your immediate family causes you to want to drink or use drugs. In that case, you can’t really eliminate your family. You are stuck with them to some degree, so you might have to learn how to deal with this trigger directly.
Of course in early recovery, I still recommend that you avoid more than you deal. In other words, just do what you have to do in order to avoid relapse, and that might mean that you run away from the problem temporarily instead of facing it directly and dealing with it. If this means the different between relapse and sobriety, by all means–run away. Sometimes we have to protect ourselves in this way in early recovery just so that we can make it through sober. In my opinion there is no shame in doing this if you are truly doing it to maintain sobriety, and dealing with something directly might be a huge relapse risk. You have to choose your battles wisely. As you get stronger in recovery you may be able to tackle a problem more directly in the future.
If you have to deal with a trigger directly and face it head on, you will want to strengthen your sobriety first and foremost. For example, are you one missed meeting away from a relapse? If so then that is a huge problem in my opinion.
I was always amazed by people in AA meetings in early recovery who would relapse after skipping a meeting or two. The point of AA is not to depend on meetings, though it seems like that was what was happening for some people. If you can’t maintain sobriety after missing a single day’s worth of AA meetings, then you need a new strategy. Your approach is flawed.
The same can be said of facing and dealing with trigger situations. For example, I would walk into my old bar right now and sit down right at the bar itself and watch other people drink booze all night long. I could do that and I could order a diet Coke and I would be OK. I would not relapse.
However, I could not do this every night for a month straight. I know this. I can get away with it once, but I cannot do it every single night and expect to remain sober.
Because the human brain will not allow it. I promise you this. If you go sit in that situation every single day your brain will start to do funny things. It will begin to resent the fact that you are not giving it alcohol. You will start to notice other people having fun every night at the bar and your brain will demand that you give it some attention too. Eventually your own brain will make you miserable unless you give it alcohol.
So I do not recommend that anyone go sit in the bar and tempt themselves on purpose. There are many other useful and fun things to do with your life other than to watch other people drink. A trigger situation like this gives you a glimpse into the strength of your sobriety and how addiction really works. No alcoholic is strong enough to sit there every day for a long time and watch other people drink. The brain will revolt against it. So don’t expose yourself needlessly. Never test yourself.
That said, you can get stronger in your sobriety so that if you end up in a forced situation like that, you won’t relapse immediately. Obviously you want to be strong enough in your sobriety that if you accidentally wind up in a tough situation that it doesn’t cause immediate relapse.
When I had a few months sober someone offered to smoke marijuana with me at work. It was completely out of the blue and I was not expecting it, not even a little. I really did not know the coworkers that offered it to me because I was just filling in at a different location temporarily.
I can remember even today (this was about 12 years ago now) how it made me feel. It felt like I had been backhanded across the face! I had to awkwardly decline the invitation and I had all of these weird feelings going on. I definitely did not like it.
And I can tell today that if someone did the same thing in the same situation that my reaction would be different. I would still decline, obviously, but I can tell that I would not feel as bad or as awkward about it. This is the difference, I think, between having 6 months sober and having 13 years sober. Today I am far more confident in my ability to have fun and enjoy my life without drugs. Today I am able to say “no” without feeling as awkward. And that took a lot of time and it also took hard work. This is one of the benefits of recovery, if you are willing to do the work.
Structuring your life in such a way to prevent relapse
I believe that we are defined by our habits. What you do every day is a huge part of who you really are.
You may have beliefs and you may have certain intentions, but none of that really matters when you compare it all to your daily habits. What do you actually do? That is what defines you in the long run.
This is especially true in long term sobriety, where your daily habits will make or break your success.
Addiction is really just a downward spiral of negativity. You self medicate, your life gets worse, and therefore you have another excuse to self medicate. Alcoholics will put it like this: “I drank so much that I screwed up my life, so I decided to drink over that.” Our addiction spirals out of control and therefore it feeds itself.
Recovery is the same way. In fact it is exactly the same principle, only the polar opposite. Instead of self destructing and putting chemicals into our bodies every day, we are taking better and better care of ourselves instead.
There was a movie about addiction who’s tagline was “Choose life.” That’s what recovery is. You are choosing life over death. Addiction is a slow suicide, plain and simple. When you drink every day you are slowly killing yourself in mind, body, and spirit.
Recovery is a different choice. Recovery is about choosing the opposite of death. You take care of yourself. You stop putting harmful chemicals into your body. You start to eat decent food on a regular basis. You start to sleep through the night a little better (this takes time). You start to have healthier relationships. You stop hurting people, and you avoid toxic relationships. You start to work on yourself and fix the parts of you that are harmful and negative.
How do you accomplish all of this? Daily habits.
Your daily habits define your choices. Quitting drinking is one choice. Healthy sleep and nutrition are other choices. And so you have to make these choices every day, because your life just keeps rolling along. And if you let the negativity back into your life then relapse is almost inevitable.
Therefore you need positive habits. You need a daily practice. You need to take care of yourself every single day in recovery so that you get stronger in sobriety and prevent relapse.
How do you do this?
You do it by considering your entire life, your whole self, your entire well being.
It is more than just not drinking alcohol or putting drugs into your body.
It is also gratitude. If you are selfish then you will relapse.
It is also relationships. If you have toxic people around you, or if you hurt others, this will cause you to relapse.
It is also emotions. If you are emotionally unstable then you will relapse. We self medicate to avoid feeling unwanted emotions.
It is also physical. If you are sick or unhealthy then this can lead to relapse. I have watched it happen many times.
There are a million and one ways to relapse.
There are many ways to become complacent in your recovery.
Therefore you need to take care of yourself in all of these ways to protect yourself from the threat of relapse.
The strength to overcome your triggers in long term sobriety
If you want to maintain sobriety then you need to build strength.
You do this in three ways:
1) Avoiding your triggers. Don’t try to be a hero. Be safe. Don’t invite temptation.
2) Strengthen your recovery. Identify your triggers and eliminate them, work through them. Find a sponsor, counselor, or therapist and ask for help with this. Get specific.
3) Find a daily practice. Establish healthy habits every day that lead you into the life that you want to be living. Grow stronger.
What about you, have you learned how to deal with your trigger situations? Are you still in the process of learning how to overcome your biggest triggers? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!