Dealing With Triggers In Recovery
Dealing with triggers sucks, but dealing with triggers in recovery can make sobriety feel unbearable.
I’m a registered nurse, work in mental health & had a chaotic childhood that left me lost as an adult. Hopefully this post will give you some new ideas when you’re dealing with triggers in recovery.
I think we’ve all heard breathing so I’ll skip that one. But, aside from breathing here are some ideas for dealing with common relapse triggers & I added some downloadable PDFs that may help too.
Whether you’ve never struggled with addiction or currently dealing with triggers in recovery; these strategies can be helpful.
Some refer to triggers in a more PTSD manner; something that evokes a powerful emotion from you. Many also refer to triggers in an addiction light and define them as anything that creates the urge to use.
These strategies can work for both types.
10 Proven Methods That Work For Dealing With Triggers In Recovery
Put Criticism into Perspective
Negative opinions and remarks can suck. Try not to let yourself have an immediate reaction. There could be some truth to what someone has to say & maybe it’s even worth you doing some self-reflection. Everyone has opinions.
Criticism is amplified when we’re in recovery. Tons of people are going to tell you how they really feel. Addiction changes our priorities and leaves a lot of people with some harsh opinions about you. There are a lot of people that are going to give their opinion even when nobody asked.
If they don’t know you personally, don’t take it personal.
Try to regulate your emotional reaction to it. Chill for a while & let yourself have some time to digest it. There are a lot of reasons why people criticize others;
- People are unhappy with themselves and prefer to focus on others’ shortcomings
- People are envious and hope to “level” the playing field
- Some people are hyper critical without realizing it (ESPECIALLY loved ones)
- Your success/failure may impact their future circumstances
- “Picking on” others might be a comfortable way for them to communicate
- They feel underappreciated and take their spite out on you
- They’re upset about something that happened in the past (whether it’s related to you or not)
- Past experiences influence opinions & sometimes people unfairly associate those with the present/future
- They may not have an understanding of the “whole story”
- Personality disorders and addictions can influence how people treat us
My point is to encourage you to put criticism into perspective. Reacting emotionally usually isn’t productive. It can be hard to not to have a knee jerk reaction, especially if that is what we usually do. Here are some ways to NOT react emotionally
- If you feel your eyebrows raising when thinking about responding or talking about the situation.. let that be a clue that you’re still pissed & wait
- Give it some time before calling, texting, or messaging back if you’re feeling some sort of way
- Consider if the criticism is constructive or not
- Consider not engaging at all if it’s not constructive
- Ask yourself if their opinion is even relevant to you
- Consider talking with someone about it (not someone who will add fuel to the fire)
- Journal about it
- Write out your response and read it to sort out your thoughts/response
- Consider avoiding people who repeatedly criticize/belittle/hurt you, even if their intention is “good”
- Track what criticism bothers you to see what you’re more sensitive to
- Track the criticism to see if it’s something you receive repeatedly
- Talk to a therapist, or talk in a group
- Take a walk, go on a drive, or find another way to get some space
- Remember your positive traits
- Check your black and white thinking
- A negative comment doesn’t mean you’re worthless
- A mistake doesn’t mean you’re a failure
- Losing doesn’t mean you’re a loser
- Don’t let guilt engulf you
- Read words of wisdom or some quotes if you need to
Watch Your Money
Money can be a big stressor. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by bills and other things that involve spending money. If you’re in recovery, you might have even destroyed some financial gains you had made.
Dealing with triggers in recovery usually has to do with a lot of things in life; including spending.
If you have an understanding of your money & a plan, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed with the inevitable life expenses.
Pay attention to where your money goes & instead of shying away from your money situation, troubleshoot & adjust.
Dealing with triggers in recovery isn’t easy and finances always have the potential to be stressful.
Here are things you can do
- Track all debt balances, income & spending; every transaction & the amount
- Mark in a calendar when each bill is due & how much it is
- Pay attention to subscriptions, reoccurring payments
- Plan ahead for other expenses; birthdays, holidays, vacations, etc.
- Make saving money a priority before spending money
- Pay attention to interest rates
- Use credit card companies to your advantage
- 0% APR promotions
- Transfer balances
- Look for alternative cheaper options for your necessities
- Sacrifice, even if it’s just for short amounts of time
- Create visuals to encourage you
- Review your expenses
- Prepare for unexpected expenses
Here are some pages below that might help. Remember that things don’t always go as planned & money comes & goes.
Create New Associations at Old Places
If the trigger is a location or some type of setting try to create a new, positive experience there. You can do this gradually if you get overwhelmed. But, it’s empowering to change the narrative and create a way to navigate something that typically rattles you.
Dealing with triggers in recovery isn’t just avoiding them, it’s learning new healthy ways to cope with them.
This isn’t something you need to force yourself into. You can even use similar places if the actual setting is inaccessible or too much too soon.
Whether you planned on visiting a place that scares you or you’re suddenly yanked back into the past without even seeing it coming, try to stay conscious of the present moment while allowing yourself to acknowledge the past.
Notice the smell of the room, listen to the sounds, touch something near you. Notice your hands, legs, arms, wiggle your toes..
It might sound silly but staying in the present moment allows you to create a new experience instead of reliving the old one. It can be helpful to journal, share in a group, or talk to a therapists about your experience too.
Even if the ‘new’ experience was you grieving, that’s healthy and beyond what happened in the past. It’s expected and okay to feel like shit when you’re standing in a place that represents your worst moments. Cry a little if you need to.
When my son started 3rd grade I walked towards his new classroom in his new school just as innocent and enthusiastic as him. Then, standing at the end of the hallway, looking exactly the same as she did the last time I seen her, was the teacher I had when my mom died. I didn’t even see it coming. She was a middle school teacher back then. but, BAM. there she was.
I was shook. I couldn’t focus on his orientation and was just haunted by her presence in the room next to his. He got a locker, a desk, and a new teacher, but I was standing there as the 7th grader I was 15 years ago; feeling like some sort of alien in a school, like I always did.
After it was over I walked him to the car, walked back into the school and “talked” to her & I’m really glad I did. It wasn’t a fairytale ending, in fact I couldn’t even say words, but I still consider it progress.
When my son started middle school I then had the experience of walking back into the school that I went to when a lot of bad things happened, and next year he’ll be in the same grade as I was when I lived the worst moments of my life. Our kids have a way of reminding us of the innocence we lost. It’s okay to be sad about it.
If it’s a place you’ll likely not see again in your day to day life, you can still revisit the place. I think it’s important to do it on your own terms. Healing is about you organizing the feelings and experiences. You can bring a friend or go by yourself; whatever feels right to you.
Some people like to make certain traditions or create some sort of ceremony when they decide to go back to places that make them feel really emotional.
I wrote a post about rituals or exercises to get rid of negative thoughts, you might find some ideas worth trying in it.
If you’d rather not revisit the old places, that’s perfectly fine too. People overcome things in different ways & some people would rather move on in a new location. Dealing with triggers in recovery (or not in recovery) is different for everyone.
Don’t feel like you need to do certain things just because someone else did or someone is pushing you to do it.
Plan Ahead for Triggering Dates, Anniversaries, & Holidays
If something traumatic happened on a holiday, you may associate that holiday with negativity. Or, maybe it’s just an ordinary date, but every year when it comes around you find yourself drowning in the past. There are different ways to handle this.
You could schedule something that will keep your mind occupied. Maybe something you’ll likely enjoy with people you like to be around.
You could also take that date and make it one where you do recognize the significance of the date. Our experiences are different, so there is no right or wrong way necessarily. You could try to create a ritual or tradition for when that date comes, like
- Planting a tree
- Releasing balloons or a lantern
- Scheduling self care on the date; hair cut, massage, spa, etc.
- Light a candle with a smell that makes you feel a certain way
- Go through your old pictures
- Write a letter to a certain person, place, or experience every year on the date & do what you want with it
- Buy yourself flowers
- Bake a cake for yourself
- Go to Al anon or another group
- Create a scrapbook page celebrating your growth
A lot of people are triggered by holidays. Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics even hold groups all day on holidays to support each other.
If you’re triggered by taking on too much, or being overinvolved with others, try filtering unnecessary people or tasks. It’s not uncommon to escape a terrible childhood only to go find the same terrible aspects of it in another person or place. It’s also not uncommon to fall back into old habits when we’re dealing with triggers in recovery
Sometimes we’re drawn to familiarity. Sometimes we don’t think we deserve better. Maybe you just feel inclined to solve other people’s problems.
“No” is a full sentence. You don’t need to have some grand reason for not doing certain things. You might need to filter out toxic family or friends or even a workplace.
Social media can also be a triggering. Pay attention to what you’re consuming and how it impacts you. Try unfollowing profiles that bother you. Deactivate certain accounts or just take a break and reflect on the impact it has on you.
Avoid irrational decisions & stay constructive.
Recognized when you find yourself in a black and white type of mindset. Black and white thinking is thinking things are “wrong” or “right”, “bad” or “good”. It’s when we think in absolutes; all or nothing.
This mindset usually has a counterproductive impact on us and it’s really a type of cognitive distortion.
Filtering will help you avoid black and white thinking. Instead of never getting on Facebook, try unfollowing all the profiles that make you feel some sort of way.
Instead of quitting your job, set a boundary about tasks you’re willing to do; negotiate for a solution.
It doesn’t always work, but problem solving is a skill that tons of people never learned. A lot of adults, parents and even professionals lack problem solving skills. Try troubleshooting or filtering certain things out if you’re being triggered by something in your life.
If you’re struggling to understand what exactly is triggering you, try tracking the trigger and use a CBT model to understand your reactions. I put a couple free PDFs below for it.
Take Care of Yourself
Don’t miss the basics. A lot of our bad habits (me included) make us more likely to fail.
- Get Quality Sleep (Read More About Sleep Here)
- Stay Hydrated
- Eat Right
These are BASIC human things. I talk to a lot of people with mental health diagnoses; many want referrals to specialists, different/stronger medications, more extensive testing; but often times they are overlooking FUNDAMENTAL human needs. We don’t need to make every problem into a medical mystery.
- If we’re not sleeping well, we’re more likely to let the little things bother us; leading to relapses, decisions we regret & poor emotional regulation
- If we’re dehydrated we’re more likely to eat unhealthy foods & therefore feel worse mentally and physically
- If we’re consuming too much sugar, our body gets rid of sugar by peeing.. So we force our body to pee out the water that keeps us hydrated when we eat excess sugar
These three things become a vicious cycle that we’re all guilty of falling into; It’s easy to! But if you live in a state of shitty sleep, with a poor diet & constant dehydration; you’re setting yourself up for problems.
“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
We make a lot of excuses (myself included)
- My kids come first
- I’m too busy
- I can’t afford healthy food
- I don’t have time
Our kids should make us even more motivated to show them how to care for themselves.
Organize Your Life
- Look at your schedule ahead of time
- Physically organize spaces to be more functional
- Prioritize what’s important to you
- Don’t put things off or avoid them all together
There are a lot of ways to improve these areas of our lives & they’re worth trying, over and over again..
“There is not one way that works for everyone. Work on self-awareness and mindful presence to zone in on what is and isn’t working for you.”
Try to refrain from all or nothing thinking. It’s impossible to be perfect at all of these. Try not to give up altogether when you feel like you could have done better.
“Learn to fail with pride – and do so fast and cleanly. Maximize trial and error – by mastering the error part.”
Be Willing to Learn
Yes, learn. Try not to say or even think things like
- I’ll always be like this
- This is just how I am
- I’ll always be this way
- It’s my bipolar
- I can’t do any better
- Ask anyone
- It runs in my family
- I’m just a bitch
- I was raised this way
- I can’t change
- It doesn’t matter what I do
- I’ve tried everything
That mindset is really limiting. I’m not minimizing symptoms or a diagnosis. There may even be some truth to some of the statements, but you’re only limiting your own growth by deciding there is nothing you can do about it.
PTSD & addiction are very much about processing trauma and learning skills. How many people say NOTHING works for them. They’ve tried all the medications in every combination, with every dose; even the strongest and newest ones.
If this sounds like you or if this sounds like the people that raised you, be mindful of your thoughts. That thinking is called a cognitive distortion & while it may be pretty engrained, it can be corrected.
Of course medications are helpful and sometimes necessary. I’m a nurse and whole heartedly “believe in” medications. BUT, depression, anxiety and PTSD have a lot to do with unprocessed trauma, poor coping skills, poor habits, cognitive distortions, and dysfunctional lifestyles.
Those are all things that can usually be adjusted, without medications.
When you’ve tried all the medications and NONE of them work.. look at your life & do some reflecting without the “I can’t” attitude. There are SO many other skills, treatments and methods for treating mental health disorders.
& don’t come at me with “people with mental health problems can’t just snap out of it.. you’re being insensitive & ignorant.”
A shit attitude isn’t a mental health diagnosis, sometimes we have to do some work & not even the best medication or treatment team can do it for us.
I also mention this because there are plenty of doctors that are willing to prescribe anything, but overlook the importance of other skills. Sometimes you have to advocate for yourself & take initiative to make some headway.
Psychiatrists prescribe medications & they know TONS. But they’re not therapists. They’re not the end all, be all of mental health treatment. Some are more ambitious and informative than others; just like in any profession.
Sometimes a treatment team isn’t providing enough resources & sometimes patients aren’t willing to learn.
If you’re walking into a clinic because you are struggling to manage your mental health; be willing to learn some things from mental health professionals.
See, I told you I believe in medications. Medications can be an incredible thing for people. If you’re dealing with triggers in recovery & learning new skills isn’t working fast enough & certain burdens aren’t immediately fixable; don’t feel ashamed if medications are part of your treatment plan.
There are medications specifically for panic attacks, nightmares & anxiety.
If you’re not into medications necessarily but willing to try supplements
There are also medications specifically for urges to use.
Here are a few:
Talk About Them
I kept this one towards the end because when we’re triggered, talking about it is usually the LAST thing we want to do & sometimes we physically can’t even get the words out.
Safety is a huge piece. If talking about triggers is completely foreign to you it might be a good idea to start with someone who is surely not to do the wrong thing. We’re fragile in recovery.
A lot of us initially want to turn to someone REALLY important and or even someone tied to our PTSD or addiction. I would advise against this, personally.
It’s high risk.
- Family or other very important people to us, are just that. They can easily invalidate you & stomp on your feelings. Coming from someone so close or important to you is that much more hurtful.
- They likely won’t know what to do with those feelings or may not even want to acknowledge that something is wrong.
People in recovery often times didn’t learn functional ways of dealing with emotions. So going to mom, dad or a sibling; people cut from the same cloth, is usually about as effective as getting advice to quit smoking from a Marlboro ad.
The reason many people have success with therapists is because they spent years in school studying & practicing the science of emotions. They’re not just guessing.. they’re experts on emotions.
If you don’t have access to someone who is licensed in the field, you can even try free resources.
I’ve mentioned in other posts some of the free resources I’ve used and I’ll put them below, again.
This one is a non profit organization that offers TONS of free support. They have individualized therapy and support groups for eating disorders, abuse, PTSD, dissociation, sexual trauma, grief and loss, self esteem, self care, men’s support groups, and addiction.
They have one on one services and group/workshops. I have joined many of their PTSD groups. I always felt safe & definitely felt connected with someone who’s been there.
Another amazing place to connect. ACOA changed my life. I know that many others feel the same admiration for this program. There are thousands of groups and they all have their own flavor. If you don’t like one, leave and try another.
They have guidelines to ensure that you feel safe. You never have to turn on a camera or mic, or speak at all. I sometimes just join to listen to others.
Don’t be turned off if you’re not from an alcoholic family; alcohol aside; there are tons of people that are just as welcome as anyone else.
The groups are for anyone that’s experienced dysfunction and dysfunction comes in MANY forms.
Being vulnerable is a powerful tool.
If you’re going to use ‘group therapy’, be mindful of how productive the group is. Hope Recovery, even though free, still has at least one group facilitator who has had some training to keep the group on track and healthy.
I’ve been to Al Anon groups that completely ignored the crosstalk rule, so just be mindful of how productive the setting is; even if it’s claiming to be helpful.
If you feel a little more secure after discussing the trigger(s) with a safe source, you could try to take it further.
You might decide that discussing the trigger with the source of the trigger, if possible, is worth the risk.
It may not go well, so walk yourself through that scenario. Don’t count on their approval & certainly don’t weigh your success in recovery on it.
Those are my 10 methods for dealing with triggers in recovery (and not in recovery). Whether your triggers are giving you the urge to use or haunting you with PTSD symptoms, these are worth trying. Take them or leave them, but either way; good luck with your journey.
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