In recovery from addiction, you learn early on to avoid the obvious relapse triggers: unnecessary stress, alcohol-serving parties, old drinking buddies. But not all relapse triggers are that obvious. Here are seven sneaky pitfalls to watch out for.
Your sobriety counselors no doubt warned you that temptation would be especially strong in the first few months, while your body and brain struggled to adjust to new everyday habits. But you may be equally vulnerable after you’re fully used to the new normal, haven’t been seriously tempted to take a drink in weeks, and have become satisfied that your problem is in the past. Only, it probably isn’t. Your brain stores lasting memories of the “good old days” when addiction was the everyday way of life: no matter how long you’ve gone without a drink, deciding you can surely handle one by now risks restarting that old programming. Be ready to accept abstinence as a permanent means of guarding your health.
Everyone knows about depression and hard times “driving people to drink,” but fewer of us consider the dangers of depression’s opposite. Getting a promotion, receiving an unexpected bonus, or just having a particularly good day all “call for a celebration,” and often the first celebration that comes to mind is the wrong kind. Plus, being extremely happy makes it easier to become overconfident. So when you make your relapse prevention plan, be sure to include non-drug rewards for the good times.
New and Exciting Settings
Taking a dream trip or out-of-town vacation, or going back to school, or getting married, or getting a new job in a new town, means euphoria combined with the excited tension of uncertainty. And often with “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” syndrome. Your relapse prevention plan should include provisions for major events and changes: remember to leave time for rest and recreation, practice overall self-care and stay in touch with your support network.
Neglect of Everyday Physical Needs
Doctors and psychologists use the acronym HALT—Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired—to remember the feelings that most often lead people to do things they know better than to do, things they are bound to regret later. The H and T points—hunger and fatigue—are frequently the generators of anger and loneliness, along with other negative emotions. Fortunately, hunger and fatigue are also the easiest factors for you to do something about. Besides eating, taking breaks and getting your night’s sleep, remember that nutritious foods (not coffee and doughnuts) are the best remedies for hunger, and that lack of exercise, as well as lack of sleep, can cause fatigue.
Other Addictive Substances or Habits
If it’s an illegal drug you’ve detoxed from, you’re still well advised to avoid drinking alcohol and to be extra cautious about taking any potentially addictive prescription medication. You might even set special limits on your consumption of common non-drug activities (shopping, eating, gambling, Internet use) that prove psychologically addictive to many people. Addiction in one area often means special vulnerability to addiction in other areas. Besides, those who overindulge in a new pleasure to compensate for a discontinued addiction, usually weaken their resolve to stay away from the old favorite as well.
We’ve talked about the perils of strong negative and strong positive emotions, but emotional limbo can be equally dangerous. Stay active with your long-term goals and favorite hobbies—preferably activities that challenge you to stretch and grow—to guard against “nothing to do” and “nothing matters much” moods that can tempt you to think you really have nothing to lose by turning back to the bottle.
Accumulation of Small Frustrations
One beetle, one termite or one mouse is an insignificant little thing, but a group of them can destroy an 80-foot tree or a whole building through incessant gnawing from within. Likewise, ongoing accumulation of insignificant-in-themselves annoyances can drive a person to suddenly snap with an intensity all out of proportion to the one obvious annoyance that proved one too many. We’ve all said at times, “If one more thing goes wrong today …”: but sometimes we get so absorbed in putting out fires that we don’t even realize we’re close to the breaking point until it’s too late. Practice regular mindfulness and learn to recognize when your body is sending “stress building up” signals. And take regular breaks to just relax, even (especially) when you feel you don’t have time.
And to cultivate an overall relapse-resistant attitude in your life, remember:
- The hard times will pass.
- The good times are to be savored slowly and in full.
- No instant gratification can match the gratification of long-term success.
- You are worth staying sober for!