Individuals pursuing recovery from substance use disorder (SUD) and other addictive behaviors will likely experience addiction triggers and cravings. Unfortunately, triggers and cravings work together and often produce a wide range of complications for those working to establish sobriety.
Unfortunately, triggers and cravings often contribute to relapse, especially for those in the beginning stages of recovery. Relapse can be a life-or-death situation. As such, it must be avoided. Individuals in recovery must understand what triggers and cravings are to prevent a relapse.
Substances and the Brain
When an individual is actively using alcohol and other drugs, they may surround themselves more often with others who also engage in substance use. They may also plan their social life around the availability of alcohol and other drugs. While it may seem like these environments are simply personal preferences, these aspects become deeply engrained within the brain.
Repeated alcohol and drug use produce lasting changes in brain structure and functioning that encourage repeated substance use. The brain’s reward system is central to this process, as it forms habits and routines.
Substances over-activate the brain’s reward system, “producing the euphoria of the drug high,” explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The reward system adapts to these chemical effects through repeated use, producing a host of physical and mental withdrawal symptoms.
Developing Triggers and Cravings
In addition to adapting to the chemical effects of the drug, the brain also becomes conditioned to the environmental elements related to substance use. Just like Pavlov’s dogs salivating to a bell, a human with an addiction will feel cravings due to the drugs and the environmental stimuli. As the same substance, environment, and objects are combined, the cravings become more pronounced.
Individuals in active recovery may not be consciously aware of the environmental aspects that may have perpetuated their substance use. In recovery, however, addressing and managing these cues, more commonly called triggers, is necessary for sobriety.
According to Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines a trigger as “a stimulus that elicits a reaction.” In addiction, a trigger can be either an internal or external stimulus that activates drug-related memories and behaviors.
In the examples mentioned above, environmental cues that perpetuated drug use included being around others that also engage in drug use and the availability of alcohol and other drugs. During recovery, these can be more accurately understood as external triggers.
Internal triggers are often the most difficult to navigate in recovery. Most of the time, internal triggers are distressing emotions that tempt an individual to self-medicating using alcohol and other drugs. Feelings of shame, blame, guilt, and judgment can be common internal triggers for those in recovery.
It is essential to understand that both internal and external triggers are subjective. However, there are many triggers that many individuals often share in early recovery. Some examples may include the following:
- Being offered an alcoholic beverage
- High-stress situations
- Revisiting traumatic experiences
- Over-confidence in sobriety
- Being in a social environment where alcohol and drug use is common
- Social isolation
- Reminiscing about past drug use
- Being asked about recovery progress
People may wonder why triggers and cravings are often mentioned together. This is because cravings are the physical and psychological reactions that usually follow exposure to an addiction trigger.
According to the scientific journal Alcohol Research & Health, the prolonged presence of alcohol and drugs induces changes in brain-cell function. The author explains that in the absence of these substances, “those changes cause an imbalance in brain activity that results in craving. Furthermore, the adaptive changes generate memories of alcohol’s [and other drug’s] pleasant effects that can be activated when [substance]-related environmental stimuli are encountered, even after prolonged abstinence, thereby leading to relapse.”
Cravings are the brain’s way of motivating an individual to engage in substance-using behavior after a period of withdrawal. Although they are uncomfortable, they will subside with effort and avoidance of substance use. This is because the brain is malleable, meaning it can adapt and change to its environment. Individuals can learn to overcome triggers and associated cravings with healthy coping strategies.
Navigating Triggers and Cravings Throughout Recovery
In treatment, individuals will work with therapists to identify their addiction triggers and work to overcome the physical and psychological cravings that result from them. However, as individuals evolve throughout their recovery, they must reflect and address new triggers that could hinder their recovery process. Some triggers, such as being around alcohol and drug use, may need to be temporarily avoided until cravings are properly managed.
SMART Recovery highlights five ways to deal with urges and craving using the acronym “DEADS.” These include:
- Delay: Denying a craving until it passes
- Escape: Removing oneself from a triggering situation or stimulus
- Accept: Accepting the cravings, knowing they will pass
- Dispute: Challenge the cravings, knowing they are a result of dysregulated brain systems
- Substitute: Using a healthy coping strategy or activity to employ an effective response to a craving
Addiction triggers and cravings are common experiences for individuals throughout any stage of the recovery journey. However, they can complicate the treatment and recovery process. It is imperative to identify and prepare for triggers and cravings. 12 South Recovery understands how challenging addiction triggers and cravings can be to manage. Fortunately, we offer the professional guidance, and support individuals need to overcome these symptoms. We have a wide range of treatment programs and services for individuals seeking recovery from substance use and mental health disorders. Our programs allow clients to access treatment while still maintaining outside responsibilities. If you or a loved one could benefit from treatment, call us today at 866-839-6876.