Experiencing triggers can be stressful for people in recovery. Learning the tools to help you cope can prevent them.

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Deciding to get treatment for substance use disorder can be a life-changing decision. However, recovery may come with many unique challenges.

Facing triggers — which can be anything that brings up thoughts, memories, or feelings that remind you of past substance use — can be some of the toughest challenges for someone in recovery.

Triggers may test your willpower and can be personal or shared with others in recovery. Identifying your triggers is often the first step in coping. This not only helps you overcome them but may also be beneficial for examining and understanding what may have led you to substance use disorder.

If you are in recovery and feeling challenged by triggers, know that you are not alone. Many people in recovery from substance use disorder learn the tools to manage stressful triggers and go on to lead balanced, fulfilling lives.

Dealing with triggers is one of the most common shared experiences in recovery, and it may feel scary to some.

For people with past substance use disorder, triggers can be any internal or external stimulus that intensely and often uncontrollably reminds them of using drugs or alcohol.

Common emotional (or internal) triggers might include experiencing feelings like:

Triggers can also be external, such as:

  • places, like your home, a city, or a bar
  • seeing something on television, the news, or in a movie
  • certain people and social groups
  • responses or reactions from certain family members

Experiencing triggers can affect your emotional state and may increase the desire to use substances again. Extreme triggers may cause recurrence of use for some people.

However, learning the tools to cope with triggers is possible with the right support.

Identifying your triggers is often the first step in learning how to cope with and manage them.

First, know that experiencing triggers in recovery is not a sign of failure. It is common for people in recovery to face triggers in their journey to wellness.

Try to avoid self-judgment if you are dealing with triggers. Self-judgment could lead to emotional distress and feelings of guilt, which can be triggers themselves.

It can be helpful to pay attention to your mind and body and how it responds to the environment around you. For example, when you experience the urge to use substances, where are you and what immediately preceded the feeling?

Also, writing down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a daily journal could help you identify trends, events, or stimuli that lead to triggers. Increasing your self-awareness may improve your chances of success.

Seeing a therapist can be an essential part of recovery. Therapists experienced in substance use disorders can help you identify and analyze possible triggers. They can also help you learn new coping mechanisms.

While experiencing triggers can be stressful, they are temporary. The uncomfortable feelings and sensations eventually pass.

Learning tools to manage triggers can make a big difference in how you respond to — and ultimately cope with — them.

Make a plan

Making a plan for how you’ll respond to triggers can help you prepare for them in the future. The steps for your plan can be simple, such as:

  1. Recognize the trigger.
  2. Reassure yourself that you do not have to give into your craving.
  3. Remove yourself from the situation.

Have a support system

A support system of people you trust can be helpful in planning.

You may want to let your loved ones know what you’re going through and how you plan on coping. When you face triggers, your support system can help you quickly change your environment.

Do things you love

Finding activities that bring you joy can be a great way to cope with triggers in the moment.

Examples of activities might include:

  • jogging or exercise
  • painting
  • going to the movies
  • reading a book
  • calling a friend or sponsor
  • taking up a hobby

Focusing on activities you love can fill the time you might have spent using substances. They can also be effective outlets for stress and negative emotions that may have caused you to use in the past.

Identifying and managing triggers can be a big part of recovery. But recovery is a journey, and there are many other tools in treatment that can support your sobriety.

Call in your support system

A strong support system can be a powerful resource in recovery. Ask those you trust to help remove any triggers from your space, such as medication or alcohol bottles.

Recovery programs

You may want to consider attending a 12-step program and getting a sponsor. A 12-step program can be incredibly effective in maintaining sobriety. These programs are designed to hold you accountable and build a strong support system.

There are also many alternatives to 12-step programs that may work better for you, both in-person and virtual or online. There are even recovery apps to help you in your journey.


Therapy can be an essential resource for people in recovery. A therapist can help you work out complex emotions that may arise as you go through recovery. Your therapist can also teach you tools and strategies for coping with cravings and triggers.

Some people prefer one-on-one therapy to recovery groups or 12-step programs. Others find success with therapy in addition to self-help groups or other means of support. There are also many online options for therapy now, too.

Recovery can be an intensely personal experience, so it’s important to embrace whatever works for you.

If you don’t already have a trusted therapist, you may want to meet with several before finding one you feel comfortable with who meets your needs. Therapy tends to take time, so having patience with yourself and the process can be essential to long-term success.

Create healthy habits

Committing to a healthy lifestyle may also be beneficial to your recovery. Try to stick to positive habits in your daily life, such as:

  • eating nutritious foods
  • exercise and move your body
  • set a regular sleep schedule

Your body and mind may be working hard to repair themselves and heal while in recovery, so these changes can be essential to your physical and mental well-being.

Outpatient programs

If you are newly in recovery, you may want to consider an outpatient program for your first few months into sobriety.

At this critical initial stage, it can be important to ensure that you continue certain treatment aspects, such as counseling and communicating with recovery experts.

Recovering from substance use disorder can be a life-changing journey for many people. However, it’s typical to encounter triggers along the way.

Triggers bring up intense memories and feelings of using substances. They can be internal, such as feelings, or external, like coming into contact with people, places, and certain stressors.

While triggers can often tempt those in recovery to use substances, you can overcome them by learning to cope.

Identifying your triggers is one of the most effective steps you can take in managing them. Paying attention to the environment around you when you experience a trigger can help you examine them. You may even consider keeping a daily journal to record your experiences.

Certain factors may be especially helpful in coping with triggers, such as:

  • building a strong support system of people you trust
  • therapy
  • focusing on activities you enjoy
  • outpatient recovery programs
  • 12-step programs and support groups
  • self-care

You may have to try several strategies before finding what works best for you. If you’re ready to seek help, you can visit Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.