Top Relapse Triggers and How to Manage Them

addict about to relapse and use drugs

Navigating recovery from any form of addiction can be a challenging journey, especially when relapse happens. Even though relapse doesn’t mean failure, understanding the triggers that may lead to a relapse is essential to maintaining progress. Recognizing these triggers and learning how to handle them can help you regain and maintain long-term sobriety.

What Are the Most Common Relapse Triggers?

A trigger in the context of substance use and addiction refers to any circumstance or stimulus promoting the use of a substance or cravings for it. Triggers vary a lot between individuals and can be associated with internal and external things.

Triggers can be categorized as:

  • Environmental: Places or settings where substance use occurred in the past. Smells, sights, or sounds can also evoke substance use memories.
  • Social: These triggers include being around people using the substance or gatherings where the use of the substance is prevalent. It can also include interacting with certain people or social groups associated with substance use.
  • Emotional: These triggers include stressful situations such as relationship conflicts or work pressure, negative emotions such as anger or sadness, or even positive emotions where some people think about using substances to celebrate or enhance a positive experience.
  • Cognitive: Thoughts or memories associated with substance use, rationalizations or justifications for substance use, or cravings or fantasies about the effects of using a substance.
  • Routine: Triggers related to routines can include certain times of day or routines linked to substance use, habits that trigger the desire to use, or activities or rituals where you often use substances.
  • Physiological: Physical pain that you associate with being relieved by substance use or exposure to cues that stimulate your physical response to the substance are physiological triggers.
  • Media cues: These might include images or ads in movies or TV shows that depict substance use, or it could be music you associate with.
  • Celebratory: There are events or occasions like parties and holidays where substance use is considered traditionally acceptable. Personal milestones or achievements can also be celebratory triggers.

Signs of Relapse

Relapse can seem like it occurred suddenly, but it often happens slowly and over time. Some of the most common signs of relapse include:

  • Change in Behavior: Sudden alterations in behavior, such as increased secrecy, isolation, or avoiding responsibilities, can signal a potential relapse. This might include withdrawing from social activities, neglecting personal hygiene, or becoming unusually secretive about whereabouts or actions.
  • Emotional Instability: Heightened emotional states like irritability, anxiety, or mood swings are often precursors to relapse. Individuals may experience increased stress, exhibit impulsive behavior, or struggle to manage emotions effectively.
  • Resumption of Denial: Returning to denial or rationalization about substance use is a significant warning sign. This might involve downplaying the severity of the addiction or justifying potentially risky behaviors related to substance use.
  • Reconnecting with Enablers: Re-establishing contact with old friends or acquaintances who were part of the previous addiction phase can be a red flag. Reconnecting with individuals who encourage or enable substance use often precedes a relapse.
  • Neglecting Support Systems: A sudden disinterest in attending support group meetings, therapy sessions, or avoiding discussions about recovery may indicate an impending relapse. Failing these support systems reduces accountability and access to vital resources.
  • Return of Cravings: Persistent and escalating cravings for the substance, accompanied by obsessive thoughts about using, indicate a heightened risk of relapse. This can trigger a cycle where the desire to use becomes overwhelming.
  • Revisiting Risky Situations: Actively seeking out or placing oneself in situations that were previously associated with substance use, such as visiting old haunts or environments where the addiction was fostered, signals a potential relapse.
  • Physical Symptoms: Changes in physical appearance or health, such as weight loss, lack of energy, or disrupted sleep patterns, can accompany the return to substance use. These symptoms might result from the physiological effects of the substance on the body.
  • Loss of Interest in Recovery Tools: Disinterest in practicing healthy habits learned during recovery, such as mindfulness, exercise, or a nutritious diet, can indicate a shift from the commitment to sobriety.

Practical Ways To Avoid Common Relapse Triggers

To prevent or manage triggers, some things you might do include:

Deep Breathing, Exercise, Mindfulness

Deep Breathing: Practicing deep breathing exercises helps regulate emotions and reduces stress. It involves inhaling deeply through the nose, holding the breath for a few seconds, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth. This technique calms the nervous system and can be done anytime, anywhere.

Exercise: Physical activity releases endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters. Regular exercise not only improves physical health but also aids in managing stress and reducing cravings. Find an exercise routine that you enjoy, whether it’s walking, yoga, dancing, or any other form of activity.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves being present in the moment without judgment. Techniques like meditation, guided imagery, or simply paying attention to your surroundings can help manage cravings and prevent relapse by increasing self-awareness.

Building a Support System

Engaging with Healthy Relationships: Surround yourself with individuals who support your recovery and engage in healthy behaviors. These could be friends, family members, or support groups who understand the challenges of addiction recovery and provide encouragement during difficult times.

Seeking Professional Help: Establishing a network of professionals, including therapists, counselors, or sponsors, provides a strong foundation for ongoing support. These individuals offer guidance, accountability, and specialized tools to navigate recovery successfully.

Avoiding High-Risk Situations

Identifying Triggers: Recognize and avoid situations, environments, or people that trigger cravings or temptations to use substances. It might involve steering clear of certain places, social gatherings, or specific behaviors that previously led to substance use.


Regular Assessment: Set aside time for self-reflection to assess your progress, emotions, and challenges. Journaling, meditation, or therapy sessions can aid in understanding your emotional and mental state, helping you recognize warning signs of relapse early on.

Setting Realistic Goals

Realistic Expectations: Establish short- and long-term goals aligning with your abilities and resources. Unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration and failure, which might trigger relapse.

Celebrate small victories along the way to maintain motivation.

Creating a Relapse Prevention Plan

Structured Plan: Develop a detailed plan outlining strategies to handle triggers, steps to take in case of cravings, and contacts for immediate support. This plan serves as a roadmap during challenging times and reinforces commitment to sobriety.

Replacing Unhealthy Habits

Adopting Positive Activities: Engage in activities that contribute to overall well-being. This includes getting enough sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, and participating in hobbies or activities that bring joy and fulfillment.

Implementing these coping strategies can significantly strengthen your ability to manage triggers, maintain sobriety, and lead a fulfilling life in recovery. Tailoring these techniques to suit your individual needs and preferences is key to their effectiveness.

Experience You Can Trust

At Midwest Recovery Centers, we help our patients overcome addiction, create healthy coping mechanisms, and develop relapse prevention plans that will work for their needs. If you’d like to learn more about our mental health and addiction treatment programs, reach out today.

Staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Click or Call Today! 844-990-1578

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