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5 Reasons People Relapse


For those who have struggled—or continue to struggle—with the burden of addiction, it’s no secret that the recovery process doesn’t end with the completion of a clinical treatment program. Once addiction takes control, the battle to achieve and maintain sobriety becomes a lifelong war of the body and mind—and there is no cure.

Addiction changes the brain, and anything or anyone once associated with those addictive behaviors has the potential to jeopardize a former substance abuser’s sobriety at any time. These triggers can appear in any form and with infinite possibilities.

Common Relapse Triggers to Watch Out For

While each individual is different and may have their own, unique circumstances, there are some more common triggers that many recovering addicts share.

1. Stress

We’re all impacted by stressful situations in our daily lives. But recovering addicts have a history of coping with those circumstances by altering their state of mind through the use of drugs or alcohol. There are things that can be done to reduce stress in our lives, but it’s simply not possible to eliminate it completely.

By making a few lifestyle changes and learning how to manage and cope with stressful situations by means of healthier mechanisms, the risk of relapse can be greatly decreased. Some of these methods can include:

  • Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Eating healthy and maintaining proper nutrition
  • Exercising regularly, especially when faced with stressful situations
  • Managing time and avoiding procrastination

2. People, places, and activities associated with addictive behaviors

Many times, the use of drugs and alcohol occur within the same setting or with a specific group of people. Simply seeing these people or being in those places can trigger a craving and jeopardize one’s sobriety.

For example, a recovering alcoholic may have once attended baseball games regularly and consumed alcohol with the same group of friends. It may not be necessary to cut ties completely with this group of friends, but avoiding trips to the ball game may be helpful in eliminating the risk of being triggered by that particular environment.

If this is a particularly close group of friends, that person may be comfortable explaining the situation and suggesting that the group watch the game from home, without the presence of alcohol. If the group of friends are unwilling to accommodate your needs and wish to continue including alcohol or drugs in their gatherings, it may be best to cut ties with these folks.

3. Untreated mental health conditions

Many addictions are associated with pre-existing mental health disorders such as depression. These problems can cause negative feelings, self-esteem issues, and emotional struggles, which are common reasons for addiction to begin in the first place.

Quite a few treatment facilities have begun approaching recovery with co-existing disorders in mind. This means looking at addiction from a perspective that includes mental health conditions as either a cause or a result, of the substance abuse problem. If issues such as depression are not identified and treated along with the addiction, they will remain a potential—and even likely— trigger for relapse.

4. Sensory reminders

Similar to avoiding people and places, your senses can pick up on reminders that may trigger a relapse. It could be seeing, smelling, tasting, or even hearing something once associated with the addiction.

Take cigarettes, for example. They’re known to be very intentionally addictive, and someone who is trying to quit will need to overcome many sensory triggers. Even aside from the nicotine withdrawal, smokers build their entire lives around when they smoke their cigarettes. It’s the muscle memory of knowing it needs to be in their hand while they drive; an internal alarm that reminds them when it’s time to take a break at work; it’s the smell of lighting that first cigarette in the morning. It completely overwhelms the senses, and when that all suddenly disappears, the brain wants it bad, especially when it senses it nearby.

Other addictions change the brain in similar ways.

For those who struggle with opioid or cocaine addiction, avoidance may be no problem at all once an addict removes themselves from their previous social circle or influences. Like cigarette smokers, an alcoholic may have a more difficult time predicting where and when they may encounter alcohol since it’s legal and virtually everywhere. So it’s a good idea to acknowledge and accept that this will likely happen on several occasions. The key to avoiding a relapse is to have a plan in place to cope with these encounters when they happen.

5. Times of celebration

Strange as it may sound, being happy and confident could very easily lead to a moment of weakness. After a few years of sobriety, a former addict may feel pretty comfortable and in complete control of themselves. The problem is that addicts don’t always have the ability to recognize when enough is enough. When attending an event, like a wedding, graduation, or bachelor party, it can be easy to plan on having only one drink. But one turns to two, and after a few, the desire to stop is gone and the overwhelming reminders of euphoric intoxication resurface an old habit.

In this case, it may be helpful to enlist a trusted wingman to go along to the party or celebration. This should be someone who is familiar with the addict’s history, knows what their triggers are, and can hold them accountable to their recovery goals and help them cope with temptation.

These are just a few of the most common causes of relapse. As a part of most treatment programs, facilities typically work with struggling addicts to identify their triggers and develop a plan to avoid them. Still, it’s impossible to predict and avoid every potential trigger for the remainder of one’s life. It’s important to plan and prepare healthy coping mechanisms for situations that may expose a recovering addict to potential triggers.

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