Early in recovery, every moment of every day unfolded as a relentless mental battle.
Intrusive thoughts would attack my mind:
A drink sounds good. No one will know.
You’re hurting—you deserve relief.
You don’t have to go to an AA meeting every day. Maybe take today off.
Then, all was over. Within (sometimes) minutes, I had a drink in hand. Then another, then another, then another.
I didn’t understand how I would begin each day with an adamant: I won’t drink today. Then, by the afternoon, all my resolve was gone. I was drunk.
So, what was happening?
I didn’t understand how to navigate triggers. I felt entirely overtaken by any thought or feeling that came my way. I was at their mercy. I couldn’t fight them.
What are triggers?
An official definition from the scholarly article, “What is the “Trigger” of Addiction?”: Triggers are “understood as a stimulus that elicits a reaction, the trigger is a key element in the craving response showed by addicts…this stimulus leads the individual to relapse after a period of abstinence.”
My definition: triggers are the ghosts of your past life, external and internal cues that awaken cravings and threaten to pull you back into addiction’s abyss.
Sound dramatic? I hope so because triggers are dramatic. They are the siren’s call that something is about to be terribly wrong.
The good news?
With the right knowledge and tools, you can conquer your triggers.
I want to share my experiences with triggers and the valuable lessons I have learned along the way. My goal is to help you understand that you, too, can navigate the maze of triggers on your journey to sobriety.
Part I: The Shadow of Triggers
1. The whisper of external triggers
It makes sense to start with some definitions. Let’s begin with external triggers. External triggers are purely based on environmental or situational factors that can provoke cravings or negative emotions in those recovering from addiction.
While external triggers vary from person-to-person, common ones include:
- People: interacting with certain people who used to be part of your addiction lifestyle
- Places: visiting locations that remind you of your addiction
- Things: objects associated with your addiction (wine glass, cigarette pack, for example)
- Events: special events such as weddings, holidays, or anniversaries
External triggers are the old haunts, the people, places, and situations that reminded me of my past addiction.
The first lesson I learned was to identify external triggers. Once I could name them, I could prepare to face them (or avoid them).
For example, driving past the liquor store became emotionally unbearable. For several years, I had to take another route.
Additionally, I could not run a simple errand into the grocery store where I used to stock up on wine. Friends, family, and grocery delivery services had to help me with this task.
Seeing people from my past who reminded me of the cycle of substance abuse—these were all external triggers that I had to identify.
Through this investigation, I began to avoid certain places, keep my distance from toxic relationships, and decline invitations to events that would be triggering.
This first step felt like I was taking control of my life again.
2. The echo of internal triggers
Internal triggers are more insidious. By definition, internal triggers are emotional, cognitive, or physical sensations that can lead to cravings or relapse.
Internal triggers may look like this:
- Emotional states: sadness, anger, loneliness, anxiety, boredom
- Thoughts and memories: thinking about the good times when in addiction
- Physical sensations: pain, fatigue, headaches, stomachaches
Internal triggers are the emotions, thoughts, and memories that come out of nowhere. I would be going along my day, suddenly plagued with the most painful yearnings. It could have been a memory that I couldn’t emotionally handle. It could have been an intense feeling of “I need something to help me. Now.”
These are the emotional states that sent me spiralling. The unpredictability of them complicated my recovery.
Understanding internal triggers was just as important, maybe even more so, than recognizing the external ones. The external ones seemed obvious: going to parties where alcohol is served is a trigger. The internal ones were not obvious: I am doing what I am supposed to be doing today—like a “normal” human, and suddenly, I have the overwhelming desire to get drunk. Even if it’s 8 AM in the morning.
My next step was to recognize internal triggers and how illogical they can be. I had to continuously remind myself that even though they did not make sense, they were still real. Very real.
Part II: Learning to Embrace Triggers as Part of Recovery
1. The relapse prevention plan
One of the best tools I have learned in recovery is the relapse prevention plan. I first learned about this plan while I was at a treatment centre. Creating a plan felt like charting a map through the web of triggers—and the map was mine and mine alone.
While this was a solo project, it involved working with a group too. I worked with a counsellor and some others in treatment to first list my triggers, understand how they affected me, and then develop coping strategies.
My relapse prevention plan has evolved over the years. Some points are no longer applicable and others that I have amended.
2. The power of a support network
Perhaps the most significant revelation on my sobriety journey is the importance of a strong support network. It’s like a warm embrace of a safety net that catches me if I feel like I’m falling. I am grateful for the friends, mentors, and family members who never gave up on me and who continue supporting me.
Opening up about my triggers and struggles was an emotional turning point.
I will never forget the time when, a few months sober, I was in a grocery store staring at the neatly lined glossy bottles of wine on the shelves. Instantly triggered. For the first time ever, instead of acting on my trigger, I pulled my cell phone out of my purse, called someone in my support group and said, “I’m standing here in the store, staring at the bottles of wine, wanting to drink. Help me.”
The magical part is that simply the act of reaching out and calling myself out that day changed everything. My friend talked to me until the triggers softened, and I was able to leave the store, no wine in hand.
Additionally, sharing my fears and cravings with loved ones allows them to better understand my battles and support me how I need it.
3. The art of coping
My recovery path has led me to discover healthy coping skills that I would have otherwise never known. For example, practising cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has become my go-to. This technique taught me how to manage my emotions and reactions, replacing destructive habits with healthier ones.
I find myself using these skills all the time, especially when I start to feel uncomfortable. Breathing techniques and positive self-talk became my allies.
The power of these tools lies in their simplicity. They can be practised anywhere and at any time.
Part III: My Battles with Specific Trigger Situations
1. Holidays and celebrations
One of the most formidable challenges I faced was the magical lure of holidays and celebrations. External triggers lurk behind every corner and are masked by laughter, clinking glasses, and the joy of others—all beyond my reach.
How do I navigate these triggers?
Two words: escape plan.
I have given myself full permission to always be able to leave any event at any time if I ever feel uncomfortable. Those who know me and my struggles understand and support this, so I never need to explain.
2. Saying no
Learning to say no was transformative for me. As a natural people-pleaser, saying no felt painful at first. Then I realised I was saying no to set boundaries to protect myself. Practising scenarios with a counsellor helped me build confidence in refusing substances or participating in behaviours that could send me back to alcohol addiction.
Learning to say no became empowering. It helped me reclaim my autonomy and practise my commitment to sobriety.
Mindfulness and meditation were (and still are) my secret weapons when facing triggers. They become my anchors. Mindfulness teaches you to stay in the present, acknowledge triggers without judgement, and then respond to them.
The “without judgement” was key here. I practised acknowledging my triggers almost as if I were watching them objectively—out of curiosity. I learned to ground myself in the here and now rather than letting my thoughts spiral about the past or future.
4. Self-care as a lifeline
Taking care of myself became a priority. In active addiction, I didn’t care whether I had eaten or not. I didn’t care whether I had showered or not. I didn’t care whether I had slept or not.
My self-care started with eating regularly. Then it evolved into eating some nutritious meals sometimes. Then, I added more sleep and finally, added exercise a few days a week.
I have realised that a healthy body contributes to a healthy mind. The knowledge that my body and mind were my strongest defenses against triggers became a powerful motivator.
What’s the bottom line?
Recovery is both messy and beautiful. It’s a profound self-discovery, a quest to reclaim your life. Triggers can be monstrous, a constant presence lurking around, ready to overtake. I have learned, and you can too, that triggers can be faced, understood, and managed.
By recognizing both external and internal triggers, you can prepare to confront them head-on. A relapse prevention plan is a solid start—a support network can be your rock. Coping skills, developed over time, will be your anchor.
Navigating holidays and celebrations can be managed with specific plans set ahead of time (consider an escape plan!). The foundation of all of this is self-care. You are worth it.
How can Camino Recovery help?
We understand that recovery is deeply personal and unique. At Camino Recovery, we take a holistic, person-centred approach to our treatment, tailoring our support to your specific needs and challenges.
Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s the opposite: a sign of strength and bravery. Your recovery journey can begin here. Reach out today to see how we can help. We believe in your potential to heal and thrive.