Triggers and Addiction

Nature Railroad Tracks into Stormy Clouds

The word “trigger” is thrown around a lot these days to the point where we are becoming desensitized to its original intention and what it truly means. For those who struggle with addiction, a trigger can be a very dangerous thing.

A trigger is an environmental, social, or personal cue related to feelings, memories, thoughts, and urges related to addiction. Learning what your own triggers are is challenging because we often don’t know them until they are in front of our faces, urging us to fall back into unhealthy addictive behaviors.

Can Anything be a Trigger?

The short answer, yes. What is or is not a trigger changes from person-to-person based on their own individual experiences. Even so, there are some experiences, emotion-states, and thought processes that are more triggering than others.

In one study, 35% of individuals reported: “experiencing negative emotions” as being the biggest trigger for them. 20% reported “social pressures,” 16% “relationship conflicts,” 9% “urges and temptations,” 8% “positive emotions with others,” 5% “testing personal control,” 4% “positive emotions alone,” and 3% “negative physical states (such as physical pain [1].”

Many of these are emotion-states. However, a trigger can be visual, verbal, or environmental as well. Seeing advertisements or drug paraphernalia is often reported as reminding individuals of their using or drinking days.

Similarly, running into old using or drinking friends or engaging in activities where using or drinking was once a focal point. Anything can be a trigger, but not everything will be a trigger for you.

Questions to Learn of Your Own Triggers

Many individuals working in the addiction field will tell you that “relapse is a part of recovery.” It is in these moments of relapse where we can learn the most about our own personal triggers and tendencies related to our addiction.

When I encounter a client that has relapsed, I encourage them to consider the “who, what, and where” of their relapse. Go back to your last moment of using or relapse and, in very specific detail, from the beginning of that day to the act of using, describe what was going on.

Who was around you? Is this a using friend, someone that you often relapse or use around, or someone that brings about unpleasant emotional states? Is this person sobriety-focused or aware of the importance of sobriety to you?

What were you doing? Again, be specific and look for patterns. Were you bored, engaging in a specific activity, hobby, or sport? Is it common that using or drinking is a part of the culture of this activity? What about the activity you were engaging in lead you to consider using or drinking? It is also important to ask yourself, “what was I feeling?”

Beach Parties are triggers for relapseFinally, where were you? If you were in one of your old haunts or “playgrounds,” that can be very telling. Is this a place you once went to use or have ever used before? Are there often drugs or alcohol in this environment? Does this environment give you a certain feeling that makes you crave substances?

Reviewing these details after a relapse or using period can help you to identify those aspects in your social group, environment, and personal emotional states that trigger you to use.

Avoidable versus Unavoidable

Once you have begun cultivating a life of sobriety, some triggers will be easier to avoid. For example, getting rid of the substances themselves and any related paraphernalia in your environment helps to remove those potential triggers.

However, other triggers such as going to a restaurant and being given the drink specials, running into old using or drinking friends, or seeing mention of substances or alcohol in advertisements or on television are less predictable.

Focus on those triggers you can control and avoid. For those you cannot, speak with your support system, therapist, treatment team, or sponsor to explore and prepare how you can cope if faced with these triggers.

Again – look at the who, what, and where. Who can you call that will help you focus on sobriety and ride this wave of temptation? What can you do to calm and distract your mind and remind yourself of your new focus? Where can you go that is a recovery-focused, sober-supportive environment?

Triggers can come out of nowhere, but this doesn’t mean you are bound to fall into their traps. You are becoming stronger than your addictive mind, and with that strength, comes the control to make different choices that forge you ahead toward recovery.


[1] Najavits, L. M. (2002). Seeking Safety. The Guilford Press.

About the Author:

Margot Rittenhouse photoMargot Rittenhouse, MS, NCC, PLPC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on July 15, 2020
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 15, 2020
Published on

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.