mental healthSubstance Abuse

5 Triggers That Can Lead to Drug Abuse Relapse

5 Triggers that Can Lead to Drug Abuse Relapse, substance abuse relapse, alcoholism, codependency

Overcoming any addiction requires a lifelong commitment to recovery. The road is a long one, and for many people, the prospect of seeking treatment is a bleak one. According to the American Addiction Centers, up to 90% of the people who struggle with addiction do not receive the treatment they need.

Even those people who seek treatment and complete a rehab program may end up having a relapse. In fact, between 40% and 60% of all drug users who complete rehabilitation relapse at some point. That’s a statistic that can be disheartening.

One of the keys to preventing relapses is to learn the triggers that may lead to a relapse in the first place. Every addict has triggers, but learning to recognize them can go a long way toward making your recovery a success.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

One of the most common triggers for relapse is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. In fact, people who have PTSD are between two and four times more likely to have an addiction than people without PTSD.

People who have PTSD may have experienced trauma for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common causes of PTSD include:
Physical abuse
Sexual abuse
Witnessing violence
Being a victim of a crime
Military service, particularly combat

One 1999 study found that PTSD led to substance abuse relapse in situations involving physical discomfort, unpleasant emotions, and interpersonal conflict, but not necessarily in other situations.

If you have PTSD, it may be helpful to identify the people, places, and situations that may trigger it. Likewise, since PTSD can be quite unpredictable, it’s helpful to learn coping mechanisms to help you deal with a PTSD-related craving.

Trying to Return to Normal

Another very common cause of relapse is when a recovering addict attempts to return to the life they knew before receiving treatment. The issue, of course, is that addiction does not exist in a vacuum. Very often, the people, places, and activities that made up the addict’s life before treatment include strong triggers that can lead to relapse.

For example, many people who abuse drugs or alcohol spend time with others who do the same thing. You may be done with your treatment, but the people who you used to spend time with may not have sought any treatment at all.

People in recovery sometimes don’t think about how difficult it will be if they find themselves in the presence of people who use drugs or even people who enabled their addiction.

The key to avoiding this type of trigger is to identify, as much as is possible, the people who enabled you in your addictive behavior and those who tried to help. It can be difficult to separate yourself from enablers, but it’s an important part of your recovery.


The human stress reaction is a normal one, and it’s something we share with all animals – even simple ones like lizards. In fact, the part of the brain that regulates the stress response is sometimes referred to as the lizard brain.

We all experience stress, but some of us cope with it more easily than others. There is some evidence to suggest that people who exhibit addictive behavior may do so because they are less successful at managing stress than people who do not have a problem with addiction.

The key to avoiding stress-related relapses is to learn how to manage stress. While the stress response is an instinctive one, it’s possible to learn mechanisms to minimize the negative effects it has on the body and mind.

One example is the practice of mindfulness, which has been used successfully to relieve stress in workplaces and in caregiving situations. A form of treatment known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, has proven to be particularly effective.

Mindfulness and meditation can both help relieve stress and train the brain not to dwell on negative emotions and thoughts.

Lack of Sleep

A lack of sleep is sometimes associated with drug abuse relapse, and yet the importance of sleep is often overlooked in drug treatment programs. In fact, one study found that people in recovery were five times as likely to experience insomnia as those in the general population.

The purpose of sleep is still being investigated, but one of the apparent functions of sleep is to restore cognitive function. Given that addictive behavior lives in the brain, it’s hardly surprising that if we fail to give our brains what they need to work properly, the risk of relapse increases.

Another study found that people in the early stages of recovery who received treatment for insomnia were less likely to experience a relapse into drug abuse.

One way to fight insomnia is to stick to a sleep schedule. Instead of varying the times that you go to bed and the times you get up in the morning, pick a time to go to bed and then stick to it. Leave your phone and other distractions in another room, and use relaxation techniques to help quiet your brain.


Happy Events and Successes

A surprising cause of relapses is the occurrence of a happy event or milestone in your life. Recovery is a process, and it isn’t uncommon for people to relapse when it seems like they should be on top of the world.

Sometimes, a big life event – even a happy one like a marriage or a promotion at work – can be a stressor. Both examples bring new responsibilities, and changes can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances.

You can reduce the chances that you’ll have a happiness-related relapse by doing some preparation beforehand. For example, if you’re getting married and you’re worried about inviting enablers to the ceremony, keep the wedding small and restrict it to your closest and most trusted friends and family.

The most important thing to remember is that you have some control over which triggers you encounter. You may not be able to predict all of them, but recognizing the five common triggers on this list can help you manage your recovery – and minimize the chances that you will have a relapse.

Professionals at drug rehabs can help you with overcoming your fears and also help you fight off your relapse trigger.



Amy Rothermel, Alpine RecoveryAbout the author: As Financial Director and co-owner of Alpine Recovery Lodge, Amy is very involved in the finances and marketing operations. A graduate of Nevada State with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration, Amy also took Masters level math, finance and economics classes at UCSD. She is committed to the business end of daily operations and strives to use her knowledge of business processes to encourage the continued growth of Alpine Recovery Lodge. She works with insurance companies to get the most coverage available for the residents.



Sharon Martin is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.