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How to Identify Substance Abuse Triggers and Cope with Cravings

Cravings for our favorite things are common and one of the many things that makes us human. But if you’re someone in recovery from a substance use disorder, cravings for drugs or alcohol can come on strong, throwing a wrench into your attempt to avoid relapse.

Cravings are caused by “triggers” that provoke memories and feelings linked to substance use. And while some substance abuse triggers are unavoidable, like a scene popping up in a movie of people using drugs or drinking, identifying and putting a plan in place to address them will help you cope with these cravings.

Before you can come up with a way to stop your cravings, you need to understand what’s going on when you experience them.

What’s in a craving?

Let’s first dispel a common misconception: A craving does not mean someone in recovery will, or even wants to, resume drug use.

Cravings are normal, common, and often uncontrollable urges that do not point to a person’s moral failing. Just like a dieter who wants a piece of chocolate cake, cravings happen to most, if not all, patients in recovery from substance use disorders. And if not properly managed, they can make avoiding relapse more challenging.

There are two fundamental types of cravings you should be aware of:

  1. These types of cravings manifest as a physical response in your body. It can feel like your stomach is turning, your chest is tightening, and your muscles are aching.
  2. These cravings are mental, showing up in your thoughts and emotions – e.g., “I need it now,” or “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Substance use disorders and drug use change the way the brain works. If you’re in recovery and experiencing a craving, you’re taken back to the time when substance use brought you pleasure, and your brain pays no attention to all the ways it caused harm.

So to avoid experiencing these cravings, you first need to know what causes them.

How can you identify potential triggers before you start craving?

Identifying triggers starts with knowing yourself, and knowing the symptoms.

Triggers are thoughts, feelings, and memories that remind you of your substance use or the lifestyle around your substance use. Brain scans have shown that these triggers are tied to your neurochemistry, activating the key parts of your brain that lead to the desire to use.

These triggers can be different for everyone. Depending on your own personality and substance use history, the following things may trigger a craving:

  • Special occasions and holidays
  • Parties
  • Sporting events
  • Gambling
  • Being around people you associate with substance use
  • Being offered a drink or drug
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Free time or boredom
  • Watching a movie where someone is using your drug of choice
  • Loneliness

Keep in mind, this list is not all inclusive.Many triggers are difficult to avoid, but that doesn’t make managing your resulting cravings impossible.

How can you cope with cravings?

You need to have a plan in place before you encounter a trigger and experience a craving.

Cravings are not permanent, and will disappear if you do not give in to them.

Second, as you create a plan, approach coping with your cravings from two different angles: internal and external.

When you are triggered by a situation and experience a craving, you should follow an internal protocol to extinguish the feeling. This process could look something like this:

  1. Recognize the craving
  2. Remind yourself that the craving doesn’t need to be acted upon
  3. Remove yourself from the situation

However, you’ll also need a strong external support system and other activities to help you continuously cope with these challenges. Let your supporters help you redirect your feeling into something distracting, like exercising, watching a movie, reading a book, or taking a walk.

Family, friends, and addiction recovery professionals are essential to help you avoid triggers whenever possible, and provide you with the right coping mechanisms to guide you through these episodes.

We’re ready and willing to offer that support system. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, reach out to us.

Call 1-800-RECOVERY today to learn more and get started.

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