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What Are Internal and External Triggers?


Internal and external triggers refer to emotional, environmental, or social situations that prompt memories which cause a desire to use drugs or drink alcohol again.


What are Internal and External Triggers?


For those going through treatment or who are otherwise in active recovery, understanding relapse triggers is vital. No matter what stage of recovery someone is in, there will always be the risk of relapse due to exposure to internal and external triggers. Internal and external triggers are the factors that can induce an individual to want to use or otherwise create a temptation in them to use their drug of choice again. Knowing how to combat these triggers can help prevent relapses.


The difference in the types of triggers is where they originate from. Internal triggers start within the patient, while external triggers are those that are created in the world around them and are largely out of their control. The individual may be able to suppress many internal triggers, but external triggers cannot be avoided without complete isolation. The only way to deal with potential triggers in their everyday lives is to have an effective toolkit of healthy coping mechanisms


Internal Triggers


HALT-Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired


The HALT triggers are some of the most common and high-risk triggers for those in recovery. Knowing and expecting these can help prevent a significant portion of relapses. The risk comes from entering unique emotional states associated with being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. For those in recovery, making sure you never get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can be a great way to fight off several internal triggers.




Emotions in general are often highly triggering for many people, and are often the leading examples of internal triggers. Not just negative emotions, but emotions that people find challenging to deal with in general are frequently to blame for returning to addictions after periods of sobriety. Since it’s not a viable solution to simply not feel anything anymore, learning how to deal with the eventual and likely unavoidable occurrence of an unpleasant or uncomfortable emotion can prevent relapses reliably.




Intrusive thoughts or other undesirable thought patterns are often the cause of relapse, particularly among those with diagnosed mental illnesses. Addiction is often the result of those with mental illness self-medicating to reduce the severity or frequency of the symptoms of that mental illness. 




Relapse isn’t a single event, it’s more of a gradual process. Those who struggle with substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder will sometimes find themselves thinking fondly about past use. 

Sometimes memories that we perceive to be happy are deeply intertwined with addictions or past addictive behaviors, which can lead to reminiscing about one-time use. This reminiscence of times when the addiction was in control is often a sign of the addiction trying to take over the brain again. If this is not immediately stopped, it can lead to current use and erosion of recovery. 


External Triggers


Reminders of your addiction can trigger relapse during recovery. A whiff of cigarette smoke, watching people sip cocktails in a bar or restaurant, or a couple locked in an erotic embrace are reminders that seem to be everywhere in the early stages of quitting. These, and countless other things, are prime examples of external triggers, and they are going to be largely unavoidable. 



People may be one of the more easily-avoided external triggers, mainly if they are people that used to be involved in substance use with the individual. By eliminating these people from the post-addiction life of recovery, many people are able to minimize the chance of relapsing due to associating with those who still use. 




Many people find that visiting certain places causes intense triggering in them. This can be somewhere traumatic, such as a childhood home, or it can just be a building or even a neighborhood where substance use happened. Visiting these places can be triggering for many people, and while many times they can be avoided, there are situations in which they can’t. Which makes healthy coping mechanisms a must.




Sometimes there are physical things or items that create the desire to use in an individual or otherwise trigger their addiction. The individual should have relapse prevention plans in place to help deal with the potential triggering caused by items they may encounter. This is important because it may not be possible or feasible to avoid them at all times. 




Research suggests that people who have used drugs in order to mitigate stress in the past are likely to return to this behavior when future stressors arise. This would suggest that someone in recovery could be prone to relapse due to an elevated level of stress in life. European Neuropsychopharmacology.


Coping with Triggers in Addiction Recovery


One of the cornerstones of treatment options for addiction recovery is education about triggers and healthy ways to cope with them. Learning healthy ways to cope with triggers is one of the ways that an individual can make their recovery able to last many years. 


4 Step method to handle triggers


Look for the discomfort before the distraction


While some triggers may create a nearly-unavoidable craving, in many situations the trigger can be removed or escaped with enough time to stop potential use. 


Write down the trigger


Writing down potential triggers can help you more easily avoid them. It can also help keep track of the triggers themselves. Keeping a list in a daily journal can be a great tactic.


Explore the sensations of the trigger


For many people, understanding what the trigger makes them feel that creates the craving can help beat the craving. 


Beware of transitional moments


Transitional moments are moments where you may have a choice between two paths, one will contribute to your recovery, while the other will not.


Preventing a Relapse with Agape Treatment Center


If you or someone you know may need help dealing with triggers, Agape offers an environment focused on recovery. To discuss treatment options, contact admissions today and speak with one of our local addiction experts. 

Call the Agape Treatment Center admissions team at 888-614-0077 to learn more about what our addiction and mental health facilities can do for you or your loved one.

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