How to Handle Triggers in Recovery

How to Handle Triggers in Recovery, break down the concept into only three phases: emotional, mental, and physical relapse.

It was a courageous act to recognize that you had a problem with addiction and choose to get treatment. You have every reason to feel proud of all you’ve accomplished so far, and the steps you’re taking to build a healthy, sober life. Knowing how to handle triggers in recovery is another vital step in this process. We have some suggestions that might help.

First, Recognize Stages of Relapse Before They Start

During treatment, you probably learned a lot of things about yourself. First, your clinicians issued a diagnosis of substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). Then, you worked through a therapeutic process to understand the contributing factors leading to addiction, such as mental health conditions, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and others. Finally, you partnered with your rehabilitation team on a continuum of care plan that outlined how to build a life of recovery, including identifying triggers that might potentially lead to relapse.

Addiction scientists recommend using your new insight to watch for cues that indicate different phases of relapse that actually happen before physical use of a substance. 

Physician and author Steven M. Melemis is a specialist in addiction and mood disorders. In an article for Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, he indicates that relapse actually happens gradually. “It begins weeks and sometimes months before an individual picks up a drink or drug.” He also states that it’s critical for individuals to “recognize the early warning signs of relapse and to develop coping skills to prevent it early in the process, when the chances of success are greatest.”

Terence T. Gorski, founder of the Center for Applied Sciences and once a leader in the field of relapse prevention, is responsible for outlining the 10 stages of relapse: a pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that lead to the final phase, physical use. While valuable knowledge, Melemis thinks it’s easier for most of us to understand all of this if we break down the concept into only three phases: emotional, mental, and physical relapse.


 “The common denominator of emotional relapse is poor self-care, in which self-care is broadly defined to include emotional, psychological, and physical care,” Gorksi says. Symptoms include not going to recovery support groups, not sharing feelings in these groups or with other trusted people, denial of stress or other serious emotions, and poor eating and sleeping habits, to name a few. This is the first relapse domino to fall. 


In this phase, “there is a war going on inside people’s minds. Part of them wants to use, but part of them doesn’t. As individuals go deeper into mental relapse, their cognitive resistance to relapse diminishes and their need for escape increases,” Melemis says. Here’s when avoiding triggers becomes even more difficult, especially as other symptoms unfold, including cravings, thinking about past use, minimizing consequences of past use or glamorizing past use, bargaining, lying, and thinking about ways to use. 


“If an individual remains in mental relapse long enough without the necessary coping skills, clinical experience has shown they are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol just to escape their turmoil,” Melemis notes. He also points out that “some researchers divide physical relapse into a “lapse” (the initial drink or drug use) and a “relapse” (a return to uncontrolled using).”

What Might Your Triggers Be?
As you can see, the real work is tapping into what you’re truly feeling and thinking before circumstances start to escalate—you can do this by understanding which external and internal triggers may affect you. While they differ for every person, here are some of the most common. 


  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Frustration
  • Loneliness
  • Mental health issues
  • Self-esteem/self-worth
  • Stress


  • A frequent social setting, such as a bar, club, or recreation center
  • A childhood home
  • A particular neighborhood
  • A workplace
  • A place of worship


  • A call or visit from a family member who sparks negative emotions
  • A setting where you once had to use alcohol or drugs to feel accepted
  • Meeting with people who continue to misuse alcohol or drugs
  • An encounter with someone who either uses or prompts feelings in you to use
  • A recurring situation that makes you want to resort to drugs or alcohol in order to cope or because of the ease of availability

How to Handle Triggers in Recovery

With your newfound insight into major patterns that lead to relapse and what your triggers might be, you can now learn to manage them effectively. Here are some tips. 

  • Recognize H.A.L.T. This acronym stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. Know how to act, but not react, to these emotions so they don’t spiral. For example, if you’re hungry, have a healthy snack. When you feel angry or lonely, talk with a sponsor, go for a walk, journal, or phone a friend who supports your wellness efforts. If you’re tired, take a short nap or meditate for a few minutes. 
  • Being mindful of wellness. It’s essential to eat right and exercise no matter what your life goals may be. But support your recovery with proper exercise, nutrition, sleep hygiene, and other positive wellness behaviors.
  • Resist temptation. Think again about emotional, environmental, and social triggers. It’s important not to test or tempt the strength of your recovery by placing yourself in situations that push you to the limit. 
  • Change your behavior. Since you now know that there’s a series of emotional and mental patterns that lead to relapse, rely on your coping skills, support groups, and therapeutic options to develop a growth mindset and encourage better wellness. 

Find the Guidance You Need at Ivory Plains

At Ivory Plains Recovery Center, we treat addiction as a brain disease. Our board-certified clinical team understands that the mind and body need not only time to heal, but also deliberate focus on a healthy course. Our addiction rehabilitation program in Adair, Iowa introduces residents to 12-Step principles, behavioral modification, trauma-informed care, and other techniques that provide a solid foundation for recovery success. If you feel threatened by relapse, call us today to learn how our individualized treatment approach will help you thrive in sobriety.

Learn more

About programs offered at Ivory Plains Recovery Center

Scroll to Top