Tips and Tricks to Manage Relapse Triggers

Understanding Triggers that Jeopardize Sobriety

I’ve been sober a long time, and I’m still amazed at the mystery and power of triggers that send my mind reeling in an instant. Triggers are anything that remind you of using or drinking. Triggers jeopardize sobriety. In my experience, they sometimes feel like I’m in immediate danger, or leave me with a feeling of great relief. And, that’s why triggers are so mysterious. You just never know what you’re in for. That’s why every single person who is working on building a solid sobriety foundation should avoid them. Many addicts who are sure they are stable, lose their sobriety because something triggers them. So, it’s important to talk about things that trigger our sobriety. And, to be clear, ALL triggers jeopardize our sobriety.

Managing Triggers When You are Newly Sober


In early recovery, most all alcoholics and addicts have vivid dreams where they are actively using. These are called using dreams. I have yet to meet someone in recovery who has not had a using dream. After 14  years sober, I still have at least one using dream per year. But, when I was new, they were horrifying, perilous things that put my sobriety at risk every time. Why? Because I didn’t have enough practice to manage them yet. So, let’s talk about managing them.

The most vivid using dream I’ve ever had was when I was in residential recovery. In order to evoke triggering images in the telling of this story, I’ll just say this. I wasn’t just using in my dream – I felt the effects of the substance I took in the dream. I woke up in a cold sweat. The dream was so vivid that even though I was awake, I was sure I’d relapsed. I was panic-stricken, and for a few minutes, I was positive I’d thrown my sobriety away. When I realized I’d just been dreaming, the relief was enormous. But, the dream shook me for the rest of the day. If this happens to you, I suggest you do three things to expel it.

  • Call your sponsor and tell them about your dream. They can share their own using dreams with you, tell you that the dreams are normal, and direct you back to the steps that move you towards sobriety – and away from thoughts of using.
  • Write about the dream. Journaling is a powerful tool. You don’t have to be a writer to pick up a pen and write about the feelings the dream evoked in you. You’ll be surprised at the inner revelations and freedom journaling can provide.
  • Share about your dream in a meeting. You don’t have to share every detail of your dream. All you need to do is share that you had the dream. Did it leave you craving a drink or a drug or grateful for your sobriety? Share your feelings. Not only will others share their experience with you, your experience will help someone else.


It is nearly impossible not to one day return to place where you once used. And, it can be difficult to avoid all the people you may have used with. These are highly triggering situations that every sober person must face. It can feel impossible to detach from old friends. As a rule of thumb, I recommend immediately letting go of all “friends” you used with. I mainly used alone, so this wasn’t very difficult for me. But, I did have connections in my phone that I had trouble parting with. And, it was very much like having the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. I was actively working steps and determined to get sober, but I would not delete those connections from my phone. When you hear in meetings that your addiction is out to kill you, it’s no joke. My whole heart was in sobriety, but my addiction did not care. Those phone numbers triggered me every time I scrolled through my connections. They plagued me – until, at three months sober, I told my sponsor about them. And, this happened. She said give me your phone and tell me the names. I did. She deleted every connection from my phone. That phone is sitting in my closet now. It’s not a trigger anymore. It’s a reminder that when I follow direction, sobriety wins.

Obviously, it’s recommended that you do not visit places where you once used. In many instances, that is a hard and fast rule. But, in some cases, it’s complicated. If you used in your own home, it’s going to be tough not go back there. (As a reminder, this is one reason why residential recovery is so important. It allows you to strengthen your sobriety before immediately facing a place with triggering memories.)

I got sober in Atlanta, but my most vivid using memories are from New Jersey – specifically, Newark, NJ. The last time I used my drug of choice was in Newark Airport, a place I cannot avoid. Before I went home for the first time, I talked to my sponsor about my fear of going back to that airport and driving through Newark to get home. She gave me the tools I needed to succeed – Ask G d to remove my desire to use. Ask Him to help me protect my sobriety. And, she told me that in time, my old memories would be replaced with new ones. I did not believe that – at all.

The first time I flew home, I used the rest room on the plane – so that I didn’t have to go into that bathroom. I entered the airport and had a panic attack because triggers can and will make you feel like you’re walking on a balancing beam. I was shaking and terrified, but walked past the bathroom, out of the airport, and only relaxed when I was safely in my father’s house. I had the same fear of the airport when I flew back to Atlanta. But, here’s the hope. My sponsor was right about the power of making new memories. Newark Airport is one of my favorite places now, because it has nothing to do with using anymore. It has everything to do with being with my family. Making new memories is one of the best ways to strengthen sobriety.

Protect Your Sobriety by Avoiding TV Shows and Media that are Triggering

If you are new, now is not the time to binge watch the show, “Intervention.” There is no need to see someone using in front of you. And, you might think you can handle it, and then see something you can’t unsee, and find yourself craving a drink or a drug. Craving can and does cause relapse. Don’t risk it.

Sometimes, without warning, you’ll be watching a show or movie that isn’t about addiction, and be triggered by surprise. It’s bound to happen, and you to be ready for it, you must know how to manage triggers before one knocks you upside the head when you least expect it.

I follow the same routine every morning. I wake up, make coffee, and read the news. Recently, I opened a story and was met with a highly triggering image of a drug I once used regularly. Immediately, my mind rolled backwards in time. I felt the drug in my hand. I remembered how it felt to use it. One instant I was mentally sober, and the next I was not. If this happens to you, and it will, you must know how to manage triggers and keep your sobriety intact.


  1. Do whatever you can to put immediate distance between yourself and the thing that triggers you. If a movie is triggering, turn it off. If an image triggers you, stop looking at it. If a place triggers you, leave. But, don’t stop there.
  2. When you feel triggered, remember the first step. “We are powerless over alcohol and our lives have become unmanageable.” Don’t blame yourself for feeling a craving or for being susceptible to triggers. Remember, we have a disease and triggers are part o it. We also have a solution. The solution will save you every single time!
  3. Call your sponsor or someone in your network. This is a we program. Don’t go it alone. If a trigger upsets you, call someone. They will remind you of all the reasons why remaining in the program is better than giving in to a craving that may kill you.
  4. If you believe in God, pray. Immediately ask God to remove your obsession to use. Ask Him to redirect your thinking and help you protect your sobriety.
  5. Do Service Work. Nothing, absolutely nothing will help you get out of your own way more than helping someone else. If you are afraid for your own sobriety, call someone who needs help. Go to a meeting and clean the room. Every act of service is an opportunity to change stinking thinking into positive thinking.
  6. Take Action. Go to a meeting, work a step, journal, drink a good cup of coffee, exercise. Doing something positive always helps.
  7. Make a written or mental Gratitude List. Nothing kills a craving more than remembering all the things you are grateful for. When I write a gratitude list, I’m always amazed that I’d have none of the things that make me happy if I were still using. I wouldn’t have a job, a roof over my head, a great relationship with my family, new friends, the ability to talk to YOU were I not sober.
  8. Remember why you got sober in the first place. What was your bottom? Were you arrested? Did you try to kill yourself? Did you do things that hurt other people? Think about how it felt to be at that bottom. It banishes the lie that using again will work out well if you relapse.
  9. Practice Mindfulness. Triggers take us back to the past. Mindfulness keeps us in the moment. Go outside, let the sun hit your face, and remember that even if your feelings are uncomfortable in the moment, they will change. Right here, right now, you are safe.
  10. Practice, Practice, Practice. In time we all find what works best for us when we are triggered. The longer we stay sober, the easier it is to manage a trigger without relapsing. When I saw the triggering image I described earlier, I felt uncomfortable – but at the very same I knew that triggers should be the next topic for this blog. I started writing, and I stayed sober.

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