Updated on 2/7/2023 Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

This blog discusses internal and external triggers and cravings in addiction recovery, ways to recognize them and how you can support your long-term sobriety. In long-term recovery from substance use, triggers and cravings to use again are expected. While having intrusive thoughts, idolizing your past substance use or needing an escape might cause you to crave substances again, being aware of your triggers and having a plan can help you sustain sobriety.

Addiction recovery comes with uncomfortable growing pains, but those growing pains are necessary for long-term success. Triggers and cravings are common in addiction recovery and can even lead to relapse if they are not properly addressed. Triggers are internal or external stimuli that can lead to substance seeking behavior, while cravings are a strong desire to use substances. To manage triggers you can keep a journal, challenge intrusive thoughts, seek advice, and recognize that these triggers and cravings are temporary. To work through cravings, you can try to focus on managing your triggers and utilize mindfulness techniques or self care to remind yourself of your long term recovery goals.

Addiction recovery often brings about intense growing pains. Although they are uncomfortable, these growing pains are necessary in order to obtain long-lasting recovery success.

In recovery, growing pains can manifest in several different ways, with the most common being experienced through triggers and cravings. Without properly addressing and working through triggers and cravings, any person in recovery is at a heightened risk of relapse.

No matter what stage of recovery you are in, it is essential for you to reflect on any and all triggering situations and experiences that may heighten your risk of relapse. Once you are able to recognize your triggers and cravings, you will have to find ways to manage them so that you can maintain your sobriety long-term.

What Are Triggers and Cravings in Addiction Recovery?

Triggers and cravings are associated with one another because they are normally experienced together.

A trigger is some kind of cue or risky reminder that puts mental or emotional strain on a person. A trigger can be a person, place or situation. Triggers can also be internal, such as having intrusive thoughts, idolizing past substance use or feeling an overwhelming need to isolate or escape. The main thing that all recovery triggers have in common is they typically promote substance seeking or using behavior.

Similarly, cravings are strong feelings of desire for something. In recovery, cravings are having a strong desire to use substances or get high. While cravings can also be mental and emotional, they tend to manifest physically as well.

In other words, triggers cue the desire to use.

Substance use impacts the brain in many ways. The severity of experienced triggers and cravings is dependent on several factors, such as drug of choice, intensity of drug use and frequency of drug use.

How to Identify Triggers

By choosing the path of recovery, you realize that your body and mind will struggle as you work to stay sober. This is because the brain and body have found their new “normal” while under the influence of drugs.

One of the most recognizable triggers is experienced through withdrawal symptoms, which can also pose themselves as mental or physical cravings. There are several other kinds of triggers that can threaten your ability to stay sober. As mentioned earlier, triggers can come from internal or external stimuli.

External Triggers

  • Being exposed to alcohol or other drugs
  • Being around people that make you feel uncomfortable or wreak havoc on your self-esteem
  • Being around people that you use to use substances with
  • Being in places or environments that you use to use substances in
  • Attending holiday events or other special events
  • Watching movies or shows that glorify substance use

Internal Triggers

  • Planning how to go about getting or finding drugs or alcohol
  • Remembering the times you used substances in the past
  • Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed
  • Feeling abnormally positive emotions

To identify your triggers, consider the people, places and situations that make you feel an urge to use. It is important to note that triggers do not have to be associated directly with drugs or alcohol. General feelings of stress, anxiety or mental distress can also be a trigger, especially if you ever used substances to self-medicate.

How to Work Through and Manage Triggers in Addiction Recovery

When you are learning to deal with triggers, you must keep your recovery at the front of your mind. You not only have to identify what triggers you, but you have to have plans in place when you are faced with situations that threaten your recovery.

Here are a few suggestions on ways that you can work through and manage your triggers:

  • Keep a journal of your triggers as they happen in your life. For every trigger, think of three different ways that you can avoid, challenge or remove yourself from the triggering situation.
  • Challenge your intrusive thoughts when they come to mind. Replace your negative thoughts with positive ones. Lean into gratitude when you start to feel stressed.
  • Learn to set personal boundaries. This might mean cutting ties with friends that still use drugs, no longer going to your favorite bar or watching movies that glorify substance use. Boundaries are necessary in all areas of life, not just in recovery.
  • Seek advice from a mentor, a sponsor or other people that have walked in your shoes. Group therapy and other support groups are meant to foster positive and helpful advice — consider attending group sessions.
  • Recognize that your trigger and craving are temporary. Sit back, reflect and then respond instead of giving in on your emotions and acting out because of frustration or overwhelm. This takes time; be patient with yourself.
  • Learn more about the chemistry of addiction and recovery. Recognizing the origin of triggers and cravings in your brain can help you put your distress into greater perspective.

How to Work Through Substance Cravings

Since triggers cue cravings, they both can show up similarly. It is important to note that cravings are short-lived. This does not mean that cravings are not intense. In the beginning stages of recovery, medical detox may be necessary because untreated withdrawal symptoms can danger the individual trying to quit their substance use.

That being said, it takes time for your brain to return to “normal” after repeated or chronic substance use. Cravings will gradually become less intense in frequency and duration the longer you stay abstinent from substances.

The main way to work on cravings is by focusing on managing your triggers. When you feel an urge to use, lean into mindfulness techniques and other forms of self-care to remind yourself that you are deserving of long-term recovery and freedom from addiction.

To achieve long-lasting recovery from addiction and substance use, it is essential to identify and manage triggers in order to reduce your risk of relapse. PaRC (Prevention and Recovery Center) is a substance use and addiction treatment center for adults and teens. At PaRC, we create individualized treatment plans for patients that address all facets of an individual’s health, working to integrate a fully sober lifestyle. For more information, call us today at (713) 939-7272.