Going through withdrawal might seem like the hardest part of recovering from an addiction at the time, but after the fact, you still have to manage months and years of cravings and addiction triggers that could cause a relapse. This is often exacerbated over the holidays, when traditions of dancing, drinking, and having a good time can leave us exposed to our worst triggers and left more tempted than ever.
Unfortunately, relapse is common, and an average of 40-60% of people relapse within 1 year, and 15% within 5 years of getting clean. If you want to be among the percentage that succeed, you have to ensure that you understand what you are up against. Learning how to manage your addiction triggers allows you to recognize and fight them when they come up so that you can stay clean over the holidays.
For most of us, the holidays are one of the hardest times to stay sober or clean, but you can manage your triggers and avoid substances so that you start your new year on the right track.
What Are Addiction Triggers?
An addiction trigger is any stimulus that triggers a reaction or craving that will eventually prompt you to slip up, give in, and take more of the substance you were previously addicted to. Triggers can be emotional, environmental, and social, and can be obvious, such as places where you used to hang out or people using the substance you were addicted to, but can also be innocuous, for example, seeing the people you were with when you were addicted, spending time with someone who caused you to be addicted, or even in an environment that makes you want to ‘have a good time’, or ‘party’. Unfortunately for many of us, the holidays are full of these triggers, and can kick off almost every type of addiction trigger depending on how you spend your holidays, your relationship with friends and family, and your emotions over the holidays.
The holidays can spark numerous emotions, and many of them have nothing to do with the ‘happiest time of the year’. Most of us know that the holidays are a time when we are supposed to be happy, supposed to be having a great time with friends and family, and often these expectations fall short, leaving us lonely, stressed, depressed, and even angry. These emotions function as addiction triggers and they can leave you craving your substance to make up for the lack of natural dopamine production in your brain.
- Stress – Stress is one of the most well understood and studied addiction triggers, and is one of the most common causes of relapse, over the holidays and during everyday life. Stress can arise from almost every holiday expectation, from having to prepare food, to traveling, to having people in your home, or being in someone else’s home. While it’s difficult to know if something will stress you out in advance, you probably have a good idea of what can and will cause you to stress over the holidays. You should take steps to avoid stress where possible (such as handling details in advance, not traveling, agreeing to fewer responsibilities, etc.) but also by creating outlets, taking the time to exercise, and talking with your friends and family to ensure that they understand you need a break. While your strategy should depend on how and why you are stressed, you should take the time to plan in both ways to reduce your stress and how to cope with it when it happens.
- Anger – Most of us don’t like to think about being angry over the holidays, but it’s a surprisingly common thing. From opposing political views to differences of opinion to someone failing to do their part in a group activity, it is surprisingly easy to get angry at family. Unfortunately, anger is an extremely common addiction trigger because it makes you upset, can cause unhappy emotions such as guilt or irritation, and can leave you looking for something to make you feel better. Take the time to identify who is likely to upset you over the holiday and then take steps to either accept that there will be problems, or create an outlet to deal with them.
- Depression – The holidays are supposed to be happy, but they often aren’t. While the idea that more suicides happen over the holidays is a long perpetuated myth, the holidays can leave many of us disappointed that we aren’t experiencing holiday cheer, upset with friends and family, or even depressed over temporary issues surrounding family, money, or circumstances. These issues are serious, and temporary depression shouldn’t be taken lightly. You can and should take steps to spend time with people who make you feel better, take the time to see people who make you happy, and to go to your sobriety meetings if you attend them. Depression will leave you craving a high to make yourself feel better, and you should seek natural fixes such as social activities, exercise, or doing things you enjoy.
- Loneliness – Not being able to see friends or family over the holidays can be heartbreaking, and this trigger can push you towards using to help yourself to feel better. While both men and women are susceptible to this, women are especially susceptible to trying to use drugs or alcohol to replace relationships. Don’t spend holiday nights alone, even if you should attend group meetings, volunteer, or spend time with friends rather than family.
- Guilt – Guilt is a very common emotion in recovering addicts, and it is one that you should expect. While guilt affects addicts in different ways, many of us feel guilty about how we treated friends or family, how we let family members down, or otherwise in how we’ve lapsed from our own expectations. These emotions can be exacerbated over the holidays when seeing family, when family members bring your addiction up, and sometimes when friends or family confront or blame you for your actions while addicted. While your circumstances will differ depending on your own actions, you can anticipate how your friends and family will react and try to talk with them in advance. Explaining that blame and anger will only cause you to be more likely to relapse, and, if necessary, apologizing for your actions before the holidays can help you to cope. However, you should expect some amount of guilt, and rationalize it. You are no longer addicted, you are working to improve yourself, and you are not ‘that person’ anymore.
- Exhaustion – Ego depletion is the concept that willpower is an exhaustible resource. In one study, a social psychologist found that when people used willpower to do small things, they had less willpower to use later on bigger things. When you’re tired, you’re less able to control your actions. This isn’t an excuse to rationalize any actions you commit when you’re tired, but rather a reason to ensure that you get enough sleep, a reason to ensure that you learn when to say no and to back away, and a reason to ensure that you don’t overextend yourself on anything during the holidays.
Most people think of the holidays and they think of time spent with family, parties, and good times. Many of us also think of alcohol, or if we associated drugs or painkillers with family visits, those substances. This can make the holidays more difficult because we are in an environment that reminds of us our addiction.
- Proximity – Proximity is an especially important issue for recovering alcoholics, who must often spend time very close to alcohol throughout the holidays. Re-exposure is one of the most common addiction triggers, and it is very common over the holidays. Most people celebrate the holidays with alcohol, and this is especially important if you are attending office or work parties, where asking for it to be removed is not an option. Many families also won’t be willing to accommodate your wish to not have alcohol in the room, and will instead expect you to use your self control to stay away from it. This can be difficult, tempting, and can seem unfair. However, you can deal with it by using several strategies. First, tell everyone that you cannot have alcohol in advance of any festivities. You can use a convenient excuse such as that you have to drive or tell the truth and explain the situation depending on who you are with and how much you want them to know. It’s also important to take the time to distract yourself, hold a non-alcoholic drink, and plan to turn people down when they try to offer you a drink. If you’re newly sober, you may want to consider skipping any parties where alcohol will be served and instead create or attend a sober party with friends.
- Location – Sometimes there are places that you will specifically associate with your time as an addict. You can work to avoid these or remind yourself that these triggers will appear and think of them in a new light.
Social triggers are your personal associations between people, places, and events with your addiction. For example, many of us will see people whom we spent time with while addicted and think of our addictions. Alcoholics see parties and think of drinking. A cocaine addict might see an area where they scored and think of buying. And a valium addict might see a stressful family situation and remember the calm of being zoned out. Social triggers vary a great deal depending on where and how our addictions were formed, but they can cover almost every aspect of social life and culture, and you should work to consider yours and then manage them over the holidays.
- People – If you were addicted and constantly spent time with certain people, those people will remind you of addiction. While this can be as extreme as spending time with friends with whom you used to drink or get high, it can be as subtle as having lived with your sister while addicted to pain medication. Certain people will trigger memories that will make you think of your addiction, and will usually make you crave that addiction. Take the time to recognize who, if anyone, will likely trigger this kind of reaction, and then expect it when it happens. While you can avoid friends who might make you crave your drug, you can usually combat this kind of trigger simply by expecting it to lessen the surprise of it.
- Associations – Any kind of association can and will cause you to think about your addiction and could kick off a chain reaction that leads you to a relapse. These associations can be simple or complex, but you should consider where your are spending your time, what you are doing with it, and how that will relate to your addicted past. Even a TV show you used to watch while addicted could kick off triggers, so consider what your family and friends typically watch over the holidays, and plan for it.
- Expectations – Most people think that alcohol, drugs, and even pills are ‘cool’, ‘normal’, or expected at a holiday party. Being the only person who is sober can suck, people can be aggravating when you turn alcohol down, and some people will even try to convince you to do ‘just one more’ when they themselves are drinking or using a substance. Peer pressure can be difficult to avoid, especially if you aren’t aware that the person will try to pressure you in advance. However, you should usually have a good idea of who drinks or uses substnaces so that you can avoid them over the holidays. You can also have a discussion with your family members in advance, plan how to say no, and remind yourself why you are staying sober so that you can remind yourself of reasons to say no. When someone offers you a drink, say no and walk away.
Saying no can be difficult, especially if you are only recently sober or clean. It is important that you take the time to create a list of reasons to stay sober, create a backup plan, find someone to call or talk to in case you experience cravings, and that you take the time to attend sobriety meetings over the holidays.
Daily exercise, spending time with friends, creating things, helping family with cooking and decorating, and otherwise participating in social events that don’t involve alcohol can all help you to feel better, avoid cravings, and stay clean.
With a little self control and a bit more preparation, the holidays can be an enjoyable time for you, even if you are recently sober. Just plan to avoid your triggers as much as possible, work to manage the ones you can’t avoid, and try to have fun. Happy Holidays.
If someone you love is struggling with alcoholism or addiction and you need help, or just have questions, please call Lighthouse Treatment Center today. We are happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors. Help is available now.