Learning to Overcome Alcohol and Drug Triggers

Learning to Overcome Alcohol and Drug Triggers


Everyone knows that there are potential triggers in addiction recovery–things that make you want to use your drug of choice, or things that cause you to start craving drugs or alcohol.

So the question is: “How can we learn to overcome these triggers?”

In my opinion any approach to overcome drug or alcohol triggers needs to be a two part approach: One part involves avoiding triggers in general when you can, the other part involves strengthening your recovery so that you can better handle triggers when they do happen.

You can’t just choose one or the other approach, instead you must do both. The reason for this is that triggers are inevitable. They are going to happen in the long run, and there is no way on earth that you are going to be able to avoid them all (and live any kind of normal life).

But on the other hand, even though you could never possibly avoid every single trigger, you also want to limit the number of triggers that you have to deal with. If you do nothing at all to try to avoid tempting situations, the you really are setting yourself up for failure at some point.

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Think about the people in recovery who have said: “I am not worried about going to a party, or a bar, (or a place where they will be using drugs). I am in recovery and I made a decision to be sober. So why should it bother me?” Well, this is the wrong attitude in my experience. You don’t want to get cocky. Realize that you do not want to use drugs or alcohol and that you probably COULD make it through such temptations, but you don’t want to throw yourself into the fire just because you think you are strong enough.

Furthermore, if you do this every single day, or if you do it frequently enough, eventually you are certain to relapse because of it. They have a saying in AA: “If you keep hanging out at the barber shop, eventually you are going to get a haircut.” This means that if you keep tempting fate every single day and putting yourself in dangerous environments, then eventually you are going to relapse.

Some people scoff at this suggestion and turn up their nose because they believe that they are so much stronger than everyone else. Yes, we know that you are strong in your recovery and that you can go to the bar today and not have a drink. But what we are cautioning you about is not in regards to today, or even tomorrow. We are saying that if you keep going to the bar over and over again that eventually you WILL relapse. It is a certainty.

Therefore it is wise to avoid temptation when possible. You don’t have to be fanatical about it (“I can never step foot in a bar again!”), but on the other hand you had better take it fairly seriously. Don’t tempt the fates and your recovery will be much stronger as a result. Don’t try to be Mr. strongman who can seemingly repel alcohol and drugs and overcome addiction against all odds. If you make it harder on yourself then you are setting yourself up for failure. Recovery is hard enough without “extra challenges.”

That said, avoiding temptations and triggers is really more of a real-time tactic in the battle against addiction. What you really want to do is employ a long term strategy that allows you to become stronger in your recovery. In order to do that you need to build a really strong foundation when you get clean and sober.

Building a strong foundation in early recovery

So you are probably asking yourself: “How exactly do I build a strong foundation in early recovery?”

I can speak from experience here: I built my foundation by taking a massive amount of action. Really, I never worked on anything harder in my whole life. I would suggest that you attack sobriety with the same level of dedication and enthusiasm if you expect to stay clean and sober.

This started with the act of surrender, something I am not sure that I was able to choose on my own. It just happened. And it took a very long time for it to happen. I had to go to a few rehabs and counseling sessions and fail to stay sober over many years before I finally surrendered. But when I did I felt a huge amount of relief because I knew that I was done struggling and fighting with addiction. I had given up the fight and I was ready to move on to something new. I was just that sick of scrambling to get high and drunk each day. I was so sick of it that I was ready to face the fear of sobriety, the fear of the unknown, rather than to go back to the daily grind of addiction. This was progress.

At that time I agreed to go to rehab, any rehab, I did not care where. Anything was better than what I was doing. Anyone could help me better than I could help myself. I was desperate. Again, if you want success in your recovery then hopefully you will have a similar attitude towards treatment. Be willing. That is a huge key.

I went to inpatient rehab and got detoxed from the drugs and alcohol. I talked with the counselors and I knew that I needed more help than a 2 week stay in a facility. They agreed to help me find placement in a long term rehab. I knew that I needed that because previous rehabs had told me that this is the level of care that I needed. Therapists had told me that they were afraid I was going to die or go to prison unless I went to long term rehab instead. People had been telling me this for a long time: go to long term treatment. So when I finally surrendered, this is what I asked for. And they helped me by sending me to a long term place.

While I was in long term rehab I was able to watch my peers and see mostly what NOT to do in recovery. To be honest most of them relapsed while living in treatment with me, and were then kicked out. I was lucky enough to stay sober while I was there. I could honestly not see what was so hard, because you had so much support and accountability while living in rehab. Why did so many of my peers relapse? To this day I do not understand it.

I went to meetings because that was required. I went to several hundred meetings in the first 18 months. I even chaired one meeting every Friday night in the detox of the rehab. And I went to lots of different meetings. I had a sponsor as well because that was required. And we had therapy groups that were mandatory to attend or you were discharged. So I was definitely involved in recovery. It was more than just a bed and free meals. I was doing the work.

I was also studying the literature and doing some writing. This is also part of “doing the work.” And I was working with my sponsor to work through the steps together. I was trying hard to live in recovery. And I was taking suggestions from other people. Someone suggested that I go back to college, so I did that. Another person suggested that I start exercising, and I tried that. I was open to trying new things that might help me in long term sobriety. I kept the stuff that I liked and I ditched the stuff that did not really click with me.

I stayed in long term treatment for 20 months before leaving. I think this was a big part of what made me successful. Most people left long before that point.

Staying in a protected environment for as long as possible

Think about it: Take an alcoholic and spin him dry in detox. Keep him there for a day, maybe two days. Then send him back out into the world and tell him not to drink. How do you think he will fare after just 48 hours in detox?

Now take another alcoholic and do the same thing. Only this time keep him in treatment for 2 years. Keep giving him therapy and support while he is living in treatment. Keep pushing him to make positive changes and to learn more about recovery. Then send him back out into the world.

Who do you think will fare better?

I am a firm believer that more treatment is almost always better than less treatment. I have worked in a drug rehab facility for over 5 years straight and I have watched what happens when people opt for “less treatment.” The results are never what they expect.

It takes effort and commitment to go with a longer treatment, but the results are usually worth it from what I have seen. Longer treatment just seems to work better. And part of this may be the fact that anyone who is willing to commit to longer treatment is probably at a deeper level of surrender. So in reality it may not be the treatment itself that is helping, but only the fact that the person is at that deep level of surrender and willingness. Those who are willing to go to a longer treatment are more committed to recovery.

They say that recovery is not about willpower. But it is most definitely about commitment. If you cannot commit to the recovery process then you are not going to do well. In some regards this level of commitment can be expressed in terms of willpower. It takes effort in order to stick with a program and see something through. It is always easier to just go relapse.

If you want to learn how to overcome your triggers and urges then you would do well to stay in treatment for as long as possible. This way you are in a safe environment and you have more support while you are learning to deal with triggers.

Let’s say that in the next 30 days you learn how to deal with roughly half of all of your triggers. So staying in a 28 day program will help you to get through all of those triggers while you are in a protected environment. If you leave detox after 5 days then you have to make it through nearly all of those triggers on your own instead. Not easy to do.

Treatment is there to help you. Take advantage of it.

Finding actions that work for you and your unique situation

Overcoming urges and temptations in recovery requires action. If you take a passive approach to life and you just keep coasting through your recovery journey then eventually you will face temptations. This is inevitable. It’s what you do with those temptations that matters.

Therefore you must take action in order to deal with cravings or triggers. These actions may be individual actions or they may involve other people (seeking support).

They try to set you up for this while you are building your foundation in recovery. For example, they tell you to get phone numbers of your peers in treatment and while you are at AA meetings so that you have people to call. They tell you to get a sponsor so that you can call them up and talk if you feel like using or drinking. They tell you to reach out and get this sort of support so that you can overcome temptations.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, and I would not try to prevent anyone from doing these things. If reaching out to others can help you to maintain sobriety, then do it. If you do not currently have people in your life with which you can do this, then that is NOT an excuse. Go find people. If you don’t know where to look then I would suggest starting where people are most helpful and friendly (in a community sense): try an AA/NA meeting or a church community. I have always found that people in both of those situations are more than willing to connect and help others. It is what they do. So not having supportive people in your life is no excuse. Go find them! Seek them out. Go to meetings and you will have plenty of help (if you want it).

Now the other side of this coin is in what I would call “individual actions.” These are things that you might do that do not depend on other people, at all.

So this might include things like exercise, meditation, prayer, yoga, etc.

It is your responsibility in recovery to find the sort of actions that help you to overcome triggers and urges.

I was lucky enough (determined enough?) to find what those things were in my own life. I kept experimenting with things like meditation and exercise until I found something that worked for me (this turned out to be distance running). This has even been put to the test several times in my recovery and I have literally “run myself away from a trigger.” Is this a harmful avoidance technique? Not at all! I was able to remain clean and sober by using my exercise to get through a really tough time in my life. The technique was there for me when I needed it most. When I had nowhere else to turn and no one could help me with what I was going through, I simply walked out the door and started running. I did not stop until I had sorted through my emotional problems and passed my own “danger point” in terms of relapse.

I am not suggesting that everyone needs to go start jogging. What I am suggesting though is that I was able to discover something that worked for me in preventing relapse. I found something that worked even when I had no one around me in my life to turn to. They say in the Big Book of AA that if you stick around and stay sober for long enough that eventually you will face that same situation–that you will be alone with your drug of choice and no one to reach out to. It will all come down to just you and your higher power. Will you be strong enough in that moment to prevail? My belief is that you can take action today and start trying new things so that you can learn what really works for you or not. I suppose for some people this action that helps them will be religious in nature (meditation or prayer). In reality my distance running is very meditative though most people probably do not see it that way.

Reorganizing your life to avoid sticky situations

As I said above you will want to make some effort to avoid triggers in your life, and also some effort to become stronger for when you encounter them anyway.

I did a whole lot of reorganizing when I lived in long term treatment for 20 months. But even after that I continued to live my life in such a way as to minimize the chaos. I avoided potential friends who were full of drama. I sought out friends who were stable and walking a strong path in recovery.

I found work that complimented my recovery. Then I found work that was even more meaningful to my sobriety. I actually did this not twice but three times total. And I am always open to taking that next step in terms of my work, and seeing how it might expand to help more people in recovery. In contrast to this, some people in recovery are still working in jobs that they used to get drunk or high at with their coworkers. Talk about an uphill battle! If that is the case then you are just making it harder on yourself.

They have a saying in recovery that can be difficult to decipher the meaning: “Give yourself a break.” This means that you need to organize your life in such a way that it makes it easy to stay clean and sober. If you are working at a job where there is constant temptation in terms of relapse, then give yourself a break and go find a new job! Easier said than done, I know….but it is still a very doable goal.

Plus, there is no time limit on this. What is the alternative? You can either keep living with the constant threats and temptations of relapse in your life, or you can slowly start to organize things so that you are in a better situation.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes–some action is better than nothing at all. In other words, don’t use the excuse that it is too difficult or takes too long to make certain changes. What are you going to do otherwise?

It is like my friend in recovery who once said to me:

“I want to be an addiction counselor now that I am in recovery. But I could never do it, you have to go to all that school, jump through all of those hoops. It will just take forever!”

Well, what is the alternative? If that is your dream then go do it! Who cares how long it takes? What else are you going to do?

The same thing applies to this idea of getting your life reorganized in order to avoid temptations and reduce chaos.

It doesn’t matter how difficult it is or how long it takes….your sobriety is worth it!


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