Managing Triggers and Increasing Coping Skills


Triggers are People, Places and Things that remind you on all levels that your addiction or alcoholism is still there, waiting.  Recovery is remission-in recovery we have choice, where in active addiction we do not.  Triggers can send you into a spiral of thought, both physical and emotional, of using again.  Triggers often vary in severity from intrusive thoughts, to an overwhelming anxious need to escape. This feelings of needing to escape sets off thoughts and behaviors.  These can beome or are the beginning of a slide towards a relapse. Triggers can be external, internal or combinations of both.

Triggers can be anything that brings on physical or emotional responses of use:

  • Smells
  • Sounds
  • Tastes
  • Music
  • People
  • Movies
  • Places
  • Seasons
  • The sound of someone’s voice
  • A specific time of year
  • Paraphernalia
  • Cash
  • Trauma
  • Credit Cards
  • Events

Triggers get fewer the longer you are in recovery, but may not ever completely dissolve.  They do become less threatening to your recovery, though, as time moves on.  Many recovering addicts and alcoholics report experiencing triggers years into their recovery.  Like any great or traumatic event in life, memories can be stimulated by any number of things.  It is not the memory that endangers us-it is how we deal with them that matters.



Internal Triggers

Internal Triggers are ignited when we need to fill an emptiness within ourselves, when we feel our worst.  We may be feeling isolated, worthless, depressed.  We want to feel whole and accepted, we may have misunderstood that stopping the use is only the very first step in recovery and we have a long, long way to go.


When we stop using alcohol and drugs, our brain is beginning the process of ‘re-setting’.  Think of it like a teeter-totter and trying to balance.  Our emotions are all over the place.  Emotions are the most common and detrimental internal trigger.

Initially, many of us first use drugs and alcohol to avoid unwanted emotions. Sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed often engage the feeling of not being in control. Rejection and abandonment are also major triggers, reminding us of  feelings from our childhood or events in our life.  In early recovery, feelings of inadequacy over legal issues, loss of job or family, income and security can lead us to desperately seek validation and when the attempts fail, we long to escape.


‘Stinking Thinking’ is a term frequently used in 12 step groups, and with good reason.   We can’t control thoughts that pop into our head, and thoughts can be insidious, triggering more unhealthy emotions. Triggers from thoughts range from negative self talk to random thoughts of “a cold beer on this sunny, hot day would be nice”, to thoughts of anger, boredom, or even thoughts of celebrating a major accomplishment.

Random thoughts come and go, and while we can’t stop those, we can control what we do with them.  Mindful meditation exercises are extremely helpful through helping us ground ourselves and process the moments as they happen.  Paying attention to our tension by recognizing negative thoughts as harmful to ourselves, isolating that thought and working through the thought can help you keep grounded.


Memories are one of our greatest gifts as humans, and they can also become one of our greatest burdens in recovery.  Painful memories of the past can be some of the most difficult triggers to overcome. Memories trigger thoughts and emotions associated with them, and can trigger a complex array of emotions and thoughts.  Furthermore, many of us have experienced trauma that may be reignited in recovery. Past trauma may trigger us to want to blot out those memories with substances.   In addition, we also have ‘muscle memory’, where certain actions we do might trigger a using memory; smokers have intense muscle memory with their hands and mouth.

Journaling, writing down thoughts and memories is a useful tool-there is something about the physical action of writing through the emotions and thoughts accompanying memories that is very therapeutic.

External Triggers

External triggers are people, places and ‘things’ and are physical triggers. These types of triggers often tset off internal triggers.   Physical triggers by themselves are brief, with the actual event last only a few seconds to minutes, but when they set off the memories and emotions associated, they can linger for hours, days or even weeks if not addressed.




In recovery, we need to separate ourselves from people we used to use with or drink with.  Distancing yourself from using people is necessary, but when these people are co-workers or family members, this is more difficult.  Work and family relationships still have to be maintained, but what cannot be continued is the relationship with drugs or alcohol.

In a work situation, this may look like no longer joining the gang for after work drinks.  Aside from the trigger of being around the people, it is the atmosphere of the establishment.  Family relations are more difficult- it may not be feasible to avoid family gatherings unless the immediate family members are the ones you drank with and used with.

A wise friend told me to never enter these venues with ‘people’ triggers alone- always bring a sober friend.  This is a sage advice.


‘Places’ as a trigger refers to any place where drinking and drug use occurred-these might be sporting events where you would drink or use, concerts, parks, or any place where you might have obtained drugs or alcohol.  These places can create an overwhelming urge to use, or create an influx of uncomfortable emotions which can be overwhelming.

Many of us change our driving routes, upsetting the muscle memory response of the drive to the liquor store or dealer’s.  For alcoholics, we change our grocery shopping pattern to avoid the aisles where liqour and wine are stored, sometimes forgoing those stores completely.  Awareness of our feelings is key; pay attention to the tension you feel when you are in places that are familiar.


Things as a trigger can be anything from the glasses you used to drink with all the way to the rigs you held on to from your use.  Pipes, bottles, corkscrews, lighters, mirrors, anything that is associated with your use should be discarded.  But other things, sometimes just seeing them, can instigate a trigger and fill you with emotions, leaving you feeling raw.

Clear and clean your home, re-arrange the furniture.  Alter your driving patterns, your phones should be cleared of past numbers.  But avoiding things is like avoiding life.  Some things you have control of, such as above; others just happen.  Being in tune with yourself, paying attention to the tension you feel, and addressing these emotions will help you conquer the trigger.  Remember- triggers only last seconds.  It is what you do with it in your mind that counts.

Managing Triggers & Strengthening Coping Skills

Triggers can sometimes be avoided:

  • blocking and removing dealer numbers from your phone
  • avoiding places where you used to drink or use
  • separating yourself from using people
  • clearing your home of all drug and alcohol paraphenalia

But not all triggers are so easily avoided.  Life happens and brings us into places and situations that cannot be avoided.  Recognizing that is one thing; learning to live with that in a healthy way is another.

Mindful Meditation

Mindful meditation is a mental training practice that helps you to slow down thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind and body.  Mindful meditation is developing awareness of your body and mind, paying attention to your tension, and practices of breathing techniques, positive self talk and calming thoughts.

Mindful exercises can be done anywhere at any time when you feel yourself becoming anxious or stressed.


Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of health, including mental health.  It is essential in recovery to feed your body the nutients it needs and replenish itself daily.  But did you know that it is also a key component of combating stress and anxiety?  A healthy diet can address many symptoms you might be feeling in recovery, especially early recovery.

Exercise Your Body

Get moving!  One of the best combatants to relieving stress and anxiety is physical exercise.  It doesn’t have to be strenuous, just enough to get you breathing deep and getting fresh air.  A walk around the block, taking those stairs instead of the elevator, riding your bike instead of the bus can do wonders for yourself and your self-esteem.

When triggers hit, take a walk!  Get some fresh air-it really does help clear your head in the moment.


Supports in recovery are your lifeline to recovery.  Finding the people whom you can call in the event of an overwhelming anything may save your life.  It will certainly save your sanity.

You find your strength in your weakness; the willingness to ask for help in itself is strength.

Managing the Moments

Helpful Hints When Life Hits You, Get to a Meeting, and:

1.  Breathe in…Count to 10….Breath out…repeat

2.  Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it to snap you back to the moment

3.  Take a walk.  If it’s raining, take an umbrella.  Just walk.

4.  Pray:  “God,  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

5.  Get a stress ball-they work!

6.  Journal.  Get what is in you head out of your head.

7.  Use the app:  Sober Meditations (it’s free) 5-10 minute quick meditations in recovery

8.  Call someone-your sponsor, your sober running buddy, your support in recovery-anyone, and keep calling until you get someone!

9.  Drink a huge glass of cold, fresh water.  Let it cool all of your insides.

10.  Weed all of the weeds out of your garden.

11.  Don’t have a garden?  Make one!  Plant something!

12.  Have you flown a kite lately?

13.  Paint, Draw, Color -let your inner artist out!

14.  Write a book, a poem, a short story.  Illustrate it!

15.  Get Involved!  Go to meetings, go to church, volunteer!



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