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5 Tips For Avoiding Triggers That Lead To Alcohol Relapse

The first few weeks of sobriety can be tough.

It’s important to think about how you can avoid relapse triggers that might tempt you into drinking. For most people, that first sober weekend is an enormous hurdle.

Even the thought of going an entire weekend without drinking can feel impossible, especially when you’re social life usually revolves around drinking. 

It’s common for people to test the waters too soon. 

Sure, you think you’ll be fine just going to the bar with your friends and ordering a ginger ale, but more than likely, you’ll set yourself up for relapse.

On the flip side, you don’t want to isolate yourself.

Yes, there’s always Netflix, and your fave pizza is just a phone call away, but you don’t have to become a sober recluse if you don’t want to.

To set yourself up for success, it’s important to recognize potential triggers and then create your own relapse prevention plan so you’ll know how to handle them. 

But first – let’s talk triggers! 

Where do alcohol relapse triggers come from?

Triggers typically come from personal experiences and events that have been associated with drinking in the past.

You’ve got internal triggers, such as emotions and thoughts. You’ve also got external triggers like people, places, and things you associate with drinking. 

For example, a trigger could be a stressful situation or another negative feeling like overwhelm. It can also be going to a bar or party where there is drinking or simply seeing alcohol.

These triggers can activate cravings for alcohol, which is when people start to feel that deeply uncomfortable hankering for a drink that has driven so many of us to relapse.

What happens in our brains when we experience a trigger?

The brain has a complex network of neurons and connections related to different experiences, emotions, and habits.

When we encounter a trigger, it can activate a neural circuit that has been previously associated with the experience of drinking, causing a release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with pleasure, reward, and habit formation.

In other words, we start to anticipate the drink, which sets in motion of series of chemical and emotional reactions that make resisting that drink really hard.

What do triggers feel like?

Triggers can feel different for different people. For me, triggers felt like a switch got turned on, and suddenly I felt overwhelmed by an emotional and physical urge to drink. I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else. The intensity varied from a dull nagging to a blinding, jittery urge.

There were moments I felt like I was ready to jump out of my skin, and nothing could quiet my body or mind. Of course, I was wrong, and if I waited it out, the intensity would eventually subside. But in those moments, I often could not be convinced otherwise.

Some common physical sensations that can accompany triggers include increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, or lightheadedness. Emotionally, triggers can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, or anger.

Sometimes you get a combination of a few of these. They are intense, but they can be overcome.

A woman cringes nervously at the thought of a drink. The title reads: "How to avoid alcohol relapse triggers."
how to deal with alcohol relapse triggers

What are the most common triggers?

Triggers in alcohol addiction recovery vary from person to person, but some of the most common triggers include:

  • Emotional states such as stress, anxiety, boredom, or depression
  • Social situations, such as parties or gatherings where alcohol and drinking is present
  • Environmental cues, such as seeing alcohol or being in a bar, liquor store, or beer aisle in a supermarket
  • Certain people, places, or things associated with drinking (like old drinking buddies)
  • Negative life events, such as job loss, breakups, or a sick parent
  • Positive life events (yep, those are triggers, too), such as celebrations or holidays
  • Thoughts and memories related to drinking

Recovery requires individuals to be aware of their unique triggers and create strategies for managing and overcoming them. That’s why I want to explore ways you can avoid triggers in early sobriety to get through those first 30 days and beyond.

A great place to start is avoiding the triggers as much as you can. 

5 Tips for Avoiding Relapse Triggers When You’re Newly Sober

Did you tell your friends that you’re not drinking? That’s the first step.

Chances are you will be met with a few responses:

  • Why would you do that?
  • Oh, come on, you can cheat on the weekends!
  • That’s awesome! I’d like to try that, too. (wishful thinking?)
  • So what, you’re an alcoholic all of a sudden?
  • Okay, cool.

It all depends on your social circle and alcohol’s role in those relationships. The most important thing, for now, is to make your intentions known, be clear, and shut down any attempt to get you to cheat.

From there, you’ll need to be proactive if you want to manage relapse triggers effectively.

1. Plan something during the day that doesn’t involve alcohol.

Everyone is different, but for me, the nighttime was the most triggering. During the day, I always found it much easier to abstain from drinking, and I believe this is true for a lot of people.

So what are you into?

Do you live near a park where you can meet up with some friends to take a walk or go for a jog? Is there a museum exhibit you’ve been meaning to check out? Or maybe you want to grab lunch at the cute little spot that opened up around the corner.

Find something that is not conducive to drinking and go do that. 

But what if I don’t want to do anything now?

For every morning that I wanted to pop out of bed and enjoy a sunny Sunday stroll, there were ten mornings I couldn’t bring myself to do anything at all.

That feeling you get that the world is dull and gray? It’s called anhedonia, and it’s a kind of depression that is common in early sobriety.

Sometimes the early days of sobriety are not even remotely inspiring. Your brain is still struggling to right all the wrong you’ve done to it.

You might be battling depression and anxiety right now. The last thing you want to do is put a pep in your step and journey out into the world.

You don’t have to do anything today if you don’t want to, but at some point, you will have to figure out what makes you tick and then go do that.

If you’re feeling especially depressed and struggling to do basic things like shower or eat, I also recommend counseling. Mental health is critical to sobriety, and you need to take care of yourself.

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2. Avoid alcohol-centered activities.

There’s a little saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, “If you don’t want a haircut, don’t go to the barbershop.” 

Such as it is with drinking. 

If you are trying to quit drinking and aren’t confident in your sobriety yet, don’t go to bars or alcohol-centered parties in the beginning. 

Call up a friend who is not a big party person and invite them to dinner or see a movie. If you’ve got a partner, plan an alcohol-free date night at home.

Don’t try to make an appearance at your favorite happy hour or brunch spot or any place where the ONLY thing to do is get drunk. 

You will be bored. You will be annoyed. But more importantly, you will be tempted to drink.

The best way to avoid triggers in early sobriety is to not intentionally subject yourself to them.

Know your triggers and your limits.

If you can’t watch football without a beer, then do not go watch football with your friends this weekend. You’re not ready.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself right now, “My entire life centers around booze. There is literally nothing to do in this town except get drunk. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t party like a maniac every weekend.”

For now, start with a quiet weekend at home.

Watch the most delightfully horrible reality TV programming you can find, go to bed early, and keep working on yourself this weekend.

That’s fine, too.

3. Be mindful of how and where you shop.

Relapse triggers are everywhere in early sobriety. Even things like going to the grocery can turn into a surprising source of temptation.

There you are, minding your own business, scoping out the tomatoes, and out of the corner of your eye, you see it – the booze aisle.

A week ago, you would’ve picked up a sixer (or two) or a bottle and tossed them into your cart. Now, there’s an urgency boiling up inside of you to do that again today.

That’s the thing about triggers in early sobriety – they can really sneak up on you.

Take a mental inventory of all the daily tasks and errands you used to do that involved picking up your liquor. Maybe you picked up a bottle of wine from your local winery at the farmer’s market every Saturday or tended to grab a six-pack at the bodega on your walk home from the metro.

You’re going to have to be more cognizant of your routine so you can manage your emotions.

This can happen in a couple of ways.

You could shop at a different store if you feel like the familiarity is what’s killing your resolve. Or you can face the urge head-on.

I promise you that if you take a couple of deep breaths, remind yourself of your goals, and get your things without stopping down that dreaded aisle, the urge will pass fairly quickly.

If, on the other hand, you can’t stop thinking about that stupid aisle, then a change of scene may be best for you.

Try the other market a few blocks down. I’m sure their arugula is just as good.

4. Make a plan to avoid relapse triggers at high-risk events.

Occasionally it is the case that an alcohol-centered activity cannot be avoided.

Some situations can’t be avoided altogether, whether it’s a wine and cheese mixer you’re in charge of at work, your cousin’s wedding, or your best friend’s birthday party.

Many tips I give for staying sober during holiday parties also apply here, but let’s go over the big ones.

Talk to the bartender.

The bar itself is a big external trigger, but you might not be able to avoid it.

You have to decide which is more triggering: being at the bar or being around people drinking while empty-handed. If it’s the latter, chat with the bartender before the event gets going.

Tell her that you’re not drinking alcohol and ask what mocktail she can mix up for you, and then keep them coming the rest of the night.

There’s a good chance nobody will even notice that you’re drinking something non-alcoholic.

Manage your internal triggers:

Being around alcohol will bring up a lot of feelings and probably some memories. You need a plan for managing them. 

Things you can do in the moment:

  • Take some deep, cleansing breaths
  • Go for a walk outside of the venue to reset 
  • Call a member of your support team (a friend or sponsor who knows what you’re going through)
  • Start going through your reasons for quitting alcohol 
  • Try to visualize how it will feel to wake up the next day having successfully avoided alcohol
  • Give yourself permission to leave early.

If you have to make up an excuse to cut out early, do that. Protect your sobriety at all costs. 

5. Establish your support systems early on. 

Maybe I should’ve started with this one. 

The thing is, we don’t have to get sober alone. And we shouldn’t try to. There are people out there who want to see you succeed. Perfect strangers who will listen to you when you’re on that ledge, wrestling with the decision to drink again. 

They’ve been there, too. 

Get your support network in place from the beginning. Some people choose to participate in a traditional recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous. Other people opt for alternative programs like SMART Recovery or Refuge Recovery

You don’t even have to go in person. There are online meetings that can be found at www.intherooms.com

Some people supplement their programs by joining online communities for people who want to quit drinking, like our private Soberish Facebook group. (There are many others like it to choose from.)

You can also sign up for individual counseling or therapy. This is especially important if you’re dealing with co-occurring conditions like anxiety or depression (which many of us do). 

Finally, you may opt for a paid program that gives you tools and techniques to navigate the early days of sobriety and re-examine your relationship with alcohol, like Annie Grace’s “The Path” program (affiliate link). This one is especially great for people who have tried and failed in the past to quit drinking. 

Or do a combination of these. 

Whatever you choose, know that you don’t have to do any of this alone.

Interested in more resources to help you quit drinking?

how to avoid triggers in early sobriety

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