What is a trigger for alcohol use disorder (AUD)?
Think of a trigger in terms of cause and effect. When operating a gun, pulling the trigger is the cause, and the gun firing is the effect.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD), colloquially known as alcoholism, can operate by the same rules. There is often an inciting event (cause) that prompts you to drink (effect). Sometimes this is an internal cause, such as negative emotions; at other times it is an external cause, such as passing a certain bar on the way home from work.
In order to break the cycle of AUD, you must examine the factors that cause you to drink (your triggers). Only then can you learn to avoid these triggers, and create a healthier effect when triggered.
Can an alcoholic ever drink again?
It’s tempting to think that if alcohol can be removed as an unhealthy coping mechanism (in other words, if one can better manage their alcohol), they can go back to drinking every now and then, or only in certain social situations.
There are some managed alcohol programs which promote harm reduction by limiting, but not completely banning, the use of alcohol. However, a Cochrane Systematic Review of 22 articles found insufficient evidence to suggest that these programs are an effective treatment for alcohol use disorder.
Most counseling programs advocate total abstinence of alcohol and formation of better coping mechanisms or rituals to take its place.
Triggers for alcoholics
Common triggers for alcohol use disorder
- Negative emotions. Often, people turn to alcohol to help them deal with negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and anger, as they don’t know of any other ways to deal with those problems. If this is a trigger for you, seek stress-reduction or cognitive behavioral therapy. Meditation can prove particularly effective at dealing with negative emotions.
Uncomfortable physical situations such as a lack of sleep or a poor diet can cause or exacerbate these negative emotions. Healthy routines are key to managing your mental health and, therefore, your addiction.
- People. Toxic people in your life can create some of the negative emotions that once led you to drink. In addition, if there are certain people that always joined you when you drank, or other alcoholics in your life, you may need to set boundaries with those people so that they cannot tempt you back into your old life.
Of course, this isn’t to say you should avoid all people. It’s important to have a support network of friends that respect your recovery and can help keep you away from alcohol.
- Places. It should go without saying that visiting the bar where you used to get drunk will only invite temptation.
However, maybe instead you tended to drink while you were home alone. If that’s the case, try and get out of the house as often as you can. Go read a book at your local library or cafe, take a walk, attend therapy or recovery meetings, or meet up with a trusted friend or sponsor.
You should also consider the associations you have with certain commutes–for instance, if your favorite bar is on your way home from work. For the first few months of your recovery, you may need to take the long way to get to work.
- Social situations. Is Christmas a particularly depressing time of year for you? Do you tend to party too hard on holidays like New Year’s and St. Patrick’s Day? Is it the office holiday party?
Consider holidays and social situations before they become a problem, and plan something fun and distracting for those days. If you are in a 12-step program, you can try suggesting alcohol-free parties on holidays; chances are, there are others in recovery with you that might need the distraction, too.
- Pain. Another common reason for turning to alcohol is relief from pain. It is difficult to quit something that puts your body at ease; however, know that you have other options. Talk to your doctor, chiropractor, or even a therapist; some pain can be exacerbated by negative emotions. Therapy and mindfulness / meditation can prove beneficial in these cases.
Less common triggers for alcohol use disorder
While the above forms a great starting point on triggers to avoid, the path to recovery is very individualized and personal. Here are some other less common triggers that former addicts shared with me.
- Music. Sometimes, song lyrics that discuss or trivialize drinking can remind a former addict of the “good times” they had while drinking. Other songs might have a strong association with drinking–for instance, if they remind you of an ex-friend or lover you used to drink with. While it may be hard to realize these associations before they come up, do your best to avoid certain songs or artists.
- Media. It’s difficult to avoid any mention of drinking or other substance abuse in the TV shows you watch. However, some shows are far more triggering for substance abuse than others. Avoid shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, at least for the first few months of your recovery.
- Animation. Don’t think you’re safe with animated media, either. Even if you’re not looking at “real”, live human beings, the excessive drinking and drug use in animated TV shows like Archer or video games like Grand Theft Auto can still normalize the practice and prove tempting.
- Boredom. Some people simply like to drink when they have nothing better to do. In addition to generally keeping yourself busy (see “Places” above), you might want to branch out and try some hobbies like reading, writing, crafting, playing a musical instrument, or exercise / sports.
- Money–too much or too little. While it may not be logical to spend money on alcohol or drugs when you have little money to begin with, financial hardship is a stressor all on its own. The good news is that cutting your alcohol habit should make you more physically and mentally healthy, which gives you the opportunity to perform better at work; plus, you’ll save a lot of money by not drinking anymore!
On the other hand, some are too tempted by having excess cash, thinking they might as well treat themselves on something nice. Maintaining a strict budget (including a savings plan) may help you keep control of your money. If it doesn’t, carefully consider giving control of your finances to someone you love and trust. This can limit your risk of relapse.
Marijuana and alcohol use disorder
There are some triggers for alcohol addiction which some say marijuana can replace, particularly chronic pain or anxiety. Therefore, in the name of harm reduction, some former addicts can turn to marijuana as a healthier, safer option.
The most important thing to know about marijuana is that no illegal substance can ever be a healthy or safe alternative. If you are buying substances from the street, you cannot guarantee the safety or purity of that product; plus, the risk of incarceration is never a reduction of harm. While marijuana possession has been decriminalized in North Carolina, possessing 1.5 oz or more is a felony according to NC law.
Even if you live in a state that allows recreational or medicinal use of marijuana, its classification as a Schedule I substance according to federal law means that research on the safety of marijuana is difficult to come by. A 2017 research review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine showed substantial evidence of marijuana’s efficacy in treating chronic pain; however, the same review also shows substantial evidence of a heightened risk of motor vehicle crashes and respiratory or bronchial issues.
And finally, while marijuana has a reputation for being non-addictive, this is not always the case. The DSM-5 includes cannabis use disorder within its section on other substance use disorders, including alcohol and heroin. In addition, research has shown physical symptoms of cannibals withdrawal including irritability and trouble with sleep, mood, or appetite.
The conclusion: with its risk of addictivity, legal trouble, and insufficient evidence to prove positive or negative effects of marijuana, its use as a replacement for other substance use disorders cannot be recommended.
Replacing alcohol use disorder with healthy coping mechanisms
While the best policy for a recovering addict is to avoid all potential triggers, this just isn’t possible in the real world. There will come a time when you come face to face with a person, place, or event that you associate with drinking, and you’ll have to make a decision.
That’s why healthy coping mechanisms (a huge part of self-care) are so important in addiction recovery, particularly when you turn to a substance to avoid unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, depression, and anger.
The good news is that many of the tools we discussed above already put you on the path toward healthy coping mechanisms:
- Stress reduction
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Maintaining healthy sleep
- Eating a better diet
- Setting boundaries with friends
- Developing a support network
- Mindfulness (such as reflecting on your triggers)
- Creating hobbies
For a more complete list of ideas for self-care, check out one of my favorite articles by my Twitter friend LoveMeTreatMe on the 5 Pillars of Self-Care.
The Bottom Line
By avoiding your triggers and instead focusing on better self-care, hobbies, relationships, and self-awareness, you won’t just be breaking the cycle of addiction and getting your life back–you’ll be creating a better, stronger version of yourself.