The Inside and Outside of Relapse triggers.

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


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Relapse triggers, either internal or external, are those things that set off cravings in a recovering person. The failure to do maintenance steps in the process of change increase the risk of giving into triggers.

External triggers are the things outside ourselves that place us at risk to resume old behaviors and give up on the progress of recovery. Shorthand ways of understanding these triggers are people, places, and things.

People are one of the biggest reasons people relapse. There is a huge temptation to look up old friends. Often the only thing that you have in common with an old friend is a history of using drugs or drinking. Sometimes there was a history of other dysfunctional activities, codependency or abusive relationships. If the people you had around you in the past supported your addiction or if they were not affirming, or made you feel bad about yourself, being around them can take you back there. Avoiding people who are bad for you is not being is being self-caring. In early recovery it is suggested you not make a change you can’t take back like changing jobs or relationships. Surround yourself with people who support your recovery.

Places are another important external trigger to pay attention to. Alcoholics need to avoid bars; drug addicts should avoid dope houses. But there are other places to avoid. People with relationship issues should avoid revisiting places they used to go with a partner who is no longer in your life. Should someone on a diet visit a candy store? I wouldn’t recommend it. Think about places that you may need to avoid if you want to be secure in your recovery. Is there a family member or former friend who triggers your issues?

Things can also reignite thoughts of returning to an old lifestyle. Music can be a powerful memory trigger, so can some smells. People with relationship issues, sometimes we call these people love addicts, find it hard to let a relationship go. They keep the old moments out. They think about the things they did together. One last call to see how that person is doing is likely to set off a new round of problems. Carrying lots of cash can trigger some people, especially gambling addicts and former drug dealers. Sometimes it is a pipe or a lighter you find hard to get rid of. Is there something that reminds you of your issue but which you find hard to give up?

Internal triggers are the other part of the equation. The things going on inside our bodies and our minds are also relapse triggers. The word HALT standing for, Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired is used as a reminder of those triggers.

Hunger, thirst and many other physical sensations can make you feel restless, irritable and unleash the cravings. Negative emotions are powerful relapse triggers. Feeling anger fear or resentment, any number of negative emotions can cause someone to catch a case of “who cares.” Loneliness sends people back to their disorder quickly. Being tired is likely to upset recovery also. All of these internal triggers have to do with not taking care of ourselves. It is a short hop from not taking care of yourself to thinking you don’t deserve care, after that why should you hang on? Why not go back to the old life? People who don’t provide good self-care don’t encourage others to care for them. They start believing they don’t deserve to be treated well and then they stop treating themselves well.

Another way of understanding internal and external triggers is to look at the two main causes of relapse, romances, and finances. Romances are all about your feelings, feelings of loving and being loved, self-worth and self-esteem. Finances, mostly money, is the ultimate thing. Lack of money can sap our will to change. Having a lot of money makes some people feel they are invincible; the rules don’t apply to them. Pay attention to the healthiness of your relationships with things and with people. When one of these relationships gets out of balance, your life is headed out of balance.

These are only some of the things that might cause you to relapse. We each have our own triggers. What are yours? Knowing your triggers and how to defuse them strengthens your recovery.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at

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