After detox, you have a chance to remain sober indefinitely and change your life for the better. Unfortunately, without help and support, you may find yourself struggling with intense cravings and triggers from all sides. Identifying your triggers and learning how to manage them can help you make the most of the second chance you were given and experience real, lasting change after detox.

What Is a Drug Trigger?

Drug triggers are internal and external cues that cause a person to crave drugs and/or alcohol and eventually cause them to use them again.1 External triggers may be locations, smells or exposure to a substance. Internal triggers may be strong emotions, physical symptoms (such as pain) or even just thoughts about using drugs or alcohol.2

Whether a trigger is internal or external, it will often remind you of your previous substance abuse. Although this cue does not force you to use drugs or drink alcohol, it severely increases the likelihood of it.

Three Types of Drug Triggers

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research and science have proven that the most common drug triggers for relapse are caused by three things: social, emotional and environmental things.3

  1. Social – A social trigger such as spending time with an old drug dealer, a person you used to drink with, or an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend could cause you to crave alcohol or drugs.
  2. Emotional – Moods and emotions have a big impact on substance abuse relapse. Intense feelings of happiness, anger, sadness, exhaustion or stress are all emotional triggers that could cause a person to turn to substance abuse.
  3. Environmental – An environmental trigger could include driving by the location of a traumatic event, attending a party where drugs and alcohol are present or seeing a display of wine glasses at a retail store.

Since all individuals are different, something that is a trigger for one person may not be a trigger for another person.

Most Common Substance Abuse Triggers

Almost anything can be a trigger for an individual in recovery, but some of the most common triggers include1,2:

  1. Stress – Stress from work, school or just everyday life may cause you to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Additionally, major life changes such as moving, starting a new job, buying a house or experiencing marital problems may also cause you to crave drugs and/or alcohol. Financial problems are also a major cause of stress, such as being unable to pay a bill or losing a job.
  2. Locations – Music concerts, bars, hotels, a friend’s home or even an old workplace may all remind you of previous drug use. If there is a certain place in your home where you used to stash your drugs, seeing it or being near it may also conjure thoughts of drug usage.
  3. Moods – Although you may only notice cravings when you’re feeling an intense emotion like fear, shame or hate, even normal feelings of boredom, insecurity or tiredness can lead to substance abuse.
  4. Smells, tastes or noises – If you used drugs at a certain restaurant or while dancing at a particular club in the past, the smells of the food or the sound of the club music may cause you to develop cravings for the drugs again.
  5. People – A spouse, friend, coworker, neighbor or family member may all serve as triggers after returning home from detox. Depending on your previous usage habits and the role of these individuals in your life, it may be necessary to avoid contact with certain people to maintain sobriety and limit temptation.
  6. Dates – The holidays are often a difficult time for people in recovery simply because of the constant exposure to alcoholic beverages. But a particular date, time of year, or even time of day can also be a trigger, especially if it is associated with a traumatic event, memory or person.


Examples of common drug triggers:

  • Mourning the anniversary of a spouse’s death
  • Spending time with old friends you used to drink/do drugs with
  • Losing a job
  • Attending a holiday party at work
  • Driving by a neighborhood where your drug dealer lives
  • Getting a call from a debt collector
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend

The Importance of Identifying Drug Triggers

Being able to identify your triggers is an essential tool you must use to remain sober after detox and there are many benefits to doing so. Identifying substance abuse triggers can help you reduce stress and anxiety in your life, develop strategies to cope with them, avoid them whenever possible, and understand the root causes of your addiction.

When identifying your drug triggers, it’s important to ask yourself questions like4:

How do I typically feel immediately before using drugs and/or alcohol?

How do I want to feel before using drugs and/or alcohol?

Recently, how have I felt before using or wanting to use drugs and/or alcohol?

It may be difficult to identify your triggers on your own without facilitated discussion in an individual or group setting. Because of this, a clinical counselor or substance abuse support group is a great way to uncover the triggers in your life that you may not already be aware of and develop strategies to combat them.

Managing Internal and External Drug Triggers

Drug and alcohol addiction treatment can help you determine what your triggers are, as well as how to manage them. Cognitive therapy and relapse prevention education in rehab are powerful tools that can help you change negative thinking while developing healthy coping skills.6,7

With the assistance of a counselor in rehab, you can effectively work to overcome the negative tendencies of addictive thinking. Enrolling in drug and alcohol rehab after detox helps you manage internal and external drug triggers by:

  • Overcoming fear – The fear of rejection, failure, relapse and even success may cause you to give in to the triggers and urges that you experience. In addiction rehab, you’ll work with a clinical counselor to both accept and acknowledge those fears while learning that your ability to overcome addiction is more than just a question of willpower. Your treatment will help you develop and practice the tools that will enable you to maintain a sober lifestyle.
  • Enjoying sobriety – Often times, people will think back on instances of substance abuse longingly because they think getting sober will lead them to feel bored or unsatisfied. In learning to manage your triggers, you’ll also begin to redefine your idea of fun. Cognitive therapy can help you reshape your thought process and learn to view sobriety and recovery in a way that is much more positive and desirable.
  • Focusing on progress, not perfection – Relapsing after detox does not mean you are a failure. Learning when to ask for help, avoiding high-risk situations, and being honest with yourself and others is a key factor in managing triggers.

Since stress is one of the main triggers for many people, it’s also important to recognize when you are most vulnerable. The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests these strategies to cope with stress5:

  • Meditating
  • Making to-do lists
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Attending individual and/or group counseling

Although some substance abuse triggers may never go away, detox can be the beginning of a new journey in recovery which will teach you how to overcome those urges and live a life free of addiction.



    1. https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA-3720/SMA-3720.pdf
    2. http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/substance-abuse/sbirt/bt-manual-module4.pdf
    3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
    4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64332/#A58353
    5. https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Living-with-a-Mental-Health-Condition/Managing-Stress
    6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/
    7. https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA12-4474/SMA12-4474.pdf
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