Evidence-Based Practice: Identifying Triggers

Calender Posted on: October 17, 2022clock Time to read: 2 minutes

At 3rd Millennium Classrooms, we are committed to providing the best possible solutions for students and clients. One of the ways we do this is by incorporating evidence-based practices into our courses. An essential evidence-based practice is identifying triggers.

One of the most difficult obstacles to recovery is the emotional and physical cues that we experience, which can push us to use the substances or engage in the behaviors that we are trying to escape from. These cues are most commonly referred to as “triggers,” and they manifest differently for different people. For some, seeing old friends or family members is enough to trigger wanting a drink; for others, the stress of performing well at work or school elicits memories of using performance-enhancing substances. 

As we move through recovery, we should expect triggers. And, like many other facets of recovery, expecting and planning for triggers is the best course of action. 

What are triggers?

Simply put, triggers are anything that bring back thoughts, feelings, or memories  that push us towards addiction. 

Triggers occur for people who are recovering from substance use disorders, and they can also happen for people who have problems with gambling, sex, disordered eating or any other type of behavioral addiction. 

Encountering a trigger can lead to a craving, which is defined as an intense desire to do something. 

Generally, this is how it works: 

First, someone will experience a trigger that reminds them of drugs or alcohol.

Second, as a result of their thoughts or feelings, they experience an intense desire to get high or drunk (also known as a craving).

Third, the person either manages the craving and stays sober, or the person uses and experiences a relapse

This is why identifying triggers and coping with cravings are skills that are absolutely necessary for those who want to enjoy ongoing sobriety. 

Examples of common triggers

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

Here are a few examples of triggers that can spark the memory of drug or alcohol use:

  • Seeing drug paraphernalia
  • Using an ATM to withdraw cash
  • Seeing beer on ice at the convenience store
  • Driving through a neighborhood where you used to score drugs
  • Seeing people you used to abuse substances with
  • Certain songs or types of music
  • Seeing someone else using drugs or drinking alcohol
  • Specific smells (like the smell of alcohol or marijuana, for example)
  • Movies or TV shows that depict drug or alcohol use

Also, painful situations and uncomfortable feelings can become triggers:

  • A breakup or divorce
  • Getting passed up for a promotion or getting fired from a job
  • The death of a loved one (including a pet)
  • Feelings of rejection
  • Stress
  • Financial difficulties
  • Loneliness
  • Family problems

Please note that this list is not exhaustive. Keep in mind that although triggers can be difficult to avoid, you can still manage the resulting cravings if you have a concrete plan in place.

Why is identifying triggers useful? 

Identifying triggers can prove indispensable to a person’s road to recovery, and half the battle is simply acknowledging that triggers are there. When people identify the things that are most likely to trigger them, or prompt them to make bad choices, they can make a plan for how to handle the trigger in a different way. 

After going through the process of identifying your triggers, you’ll also need to avoid those triggers, especially during early recovery. For instance, don’t go to bars or hang around people who use drugs. Stay away from old neighborhoods you used to frequent. If a song comes on the radio that triggers you, change the station.

It can also be helpful to remember that triggers and cravings are not permanent, and they will go away if you do not give into them. A trigger is a temporary, fleeting experience. Recognize it for what it is when it shows up in your life. Know that it is completely normal to feel triggered. Remember that you have the power to instill change in your life, and be confident that you can ignore triggers.

You’ll also need a strong support system to help you identify, avoid, and manage triggers. When you recognize a trigger, reach out to loved ones. Let your supporters help you redirect your feelings into something distracting, like exercising, watching a movie, reading a book, or taking a hike.  

The good news about triggers is that they lessen over time, as you continue living a healthy life and creating new memories. Before long, you will experience fewer thoughts that generate intense cravings. You may even reach a point where you experience a trigger and are indifferent to it. 

Don’t feel bad if you are still struggling to overcome your triggers. As you make progress along your path to recovery, make sure to celebrate the little wins and milestones as well as the larger ones.


If you’d like to read more about the evidence-based practices that we incorporate into all of our courses,
check out our posts on Reflection & Evaluation, Identify Protective Behaviors, Motivational Interviewing,
Normative Perceptions, Risk Perception, Behavior & Skills Training, and Personalized Feedback.