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What is the first step of the addiction cycle?

The first step of the addiction cycle is often referred to as the “trigger.” A trigger is anything that starts the craving for the addictive substance or behavior. Triggers can be internal, like emotions or thoughts, or external, like people, places, or things associated with the addiction. Understanding triggers and the role they play is an important early step in breaking the addiction cycle.

What are some common internal triggers?

Internal triggers originate within the individual and often involve difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Common internal triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Insecurity
  • Anger
  • Frustration

When an addicted individual experiences these emotions, the urge to use their substance of choice can become very strong. The addicted brain has learned to associate using the addictive substance with temporary relief or escape from these feelings. This conditioned response drives the addicted person to repeat the addictive behavior.

What are some external triggers?

External triggers come from outside the individual and involve exposure to people, places, things or situations associated with the addiction. Common external triggers include:

  • Seeing drug paraphernalia
  • Driving by a bar or liquor store
  • Smelling cigarette smoke
  • Seeing gambling venues
  • Talking to certain friends who also engage in the addictive behavior
  • Experiencing financial problems
  • Fighting with family members
  • Encountering advertisements for substances/behaviors

When an addicted person encounters these external triggers, it activates cravings and urges to repeat the addictive behavior. External triggers often have very strong associations to the “high” felt during active addiction, making them potent stimuli for relapse.

How do triggers lead to cravings and urges?

Triggers, whether internal or external, initiate a series of neurological and physiological responses that can lead to intense cravings and urges to use:

  • Trigger – The initial stimulus associated with the addiction.
  • Memory Activation – The trigger activates memories associated with using the substance or behavior.
  • Craving – As the memories are activated, physical and psychological cravings begin to emerge.
  • Urge – The cravings intensify, leading to an urgent and intense desire to engage in the addictive behavior.

This process can happen very rapidly once the addicted brain has been “primed” by a trigger. The craving and urge often reach peak levels within just a few minutes of exposure to the trigger.

Why are triggers so powerful?

The power of addiction triggers can be explained by brain changes that occur with repeated substance use or addictive behaviors. The parts of the brain responsible for memory and learning are profoundly impacted.

As someone engages in addictive behaviors, the brain begins to associate the behavior with highly rewarding neurochemical changes – specifically large surges of dopamine and endogenous opioids. It remembers this experience.

environmental cues associated with the addictive behavior also become ingrained in memory. Specific people, places, things and situations get strongly tied to the neurochemical reward through conditioning.

With repeated use, these associations become firmly entrenched in the brain’s neural circuitry. Eventually, simply encountering people, places or things previously linked with drug use can trigger the same pathways and neurochemical responses as actual drug use would.

These conditioned responses explain why triggers can spark such intense cravings even after long periods of abstinence. The brain remembers the addiction and has a built-in impulse to repeat what it remembers as rewarding.

How are triggers addressed in addiction treatment?

Because of the major role triggers play in relapse, addiction treatment puts a heavy emphasis on identifying individual triggers and developing healthy coping strategies. Some ways treatment programs help with triggers include:

  • Self-monitoring – Individuals in recovery are encouraged to keep a log of their triggers and craving levels to increase self-awareness.
  • Avoidance – Individuals may be coached to avoid or limit exposure to high-risk triggers whenever possible.
  • Coping skills – Alternative coping skills are taught to manage cravings and urges when they arise.
  • Talk therapy – Counseling helps individuals identify subconscious triggers rooted in unresolved trauma/emotions.
  • Relaxation techniques – Stress management and relaxation skills may be taught to control anxiety/irritability.
  • Urge surfing – Riding out the intensity of cravings and urges without giving in is practiced.

With heightened awareness of personal triggers and go-to coping strategies in place, individuals in recovery are better equipped to interrupt the addiction cycle at the very first step.

What are some tips for identifying triggers?

Here are some tips for identifying potential triggers:

  • Keep a journal tracking your cravings and what preceded them.
  • Look for patterns around what emotions, places, people, or situations were present.
  • Ask close friends/family if they notice associations between your cravings and any recurring triggers.
  • Pay attention to your body’s cues – do you feel more tense, anxious, bored?
  • Note external factors like time of day, location, activities happening.
  • Consider major life events or stressors occurring at the time.
  • Look for subtle sensory cues – sounds, smells, visuals related to using.

Careful personal tracking and observation of craving patterns can help uncover triggers that might not be immediately obvious. This increases self-awareness about the addiction.

What are some examples of positive coping strategies for triggers?

When a trigger surfaces, the healthiest thing is to respond in ways that interrupt the addictive thought process before urges and cravings escalate. Here are some positive coping strategies to try:

Trigger Healthy Coping Strategies
Feeling depressed or lonely Call a sober friend or sponsor; go to a support group meeting
Driving past the liquor store Take a different route; listen to recovery-themed podcast
Getting in argument with family Take a timeout to cool down; practice stress management
Seeing others gamble at a casino Leave the environment; engage in a fun distraction
Feeling exhausted and stressed Take a relaxing bath; get some light exercise

Having some go-to coping strategies makes it easier to act wisely in the moment when triggers arise. With practice, these healthy responses can become automatic.

How can you make your environment more “trigger-proof?”

It’s also helpful to set up your environment to limit trigger exposures. Some ways to make your surroundings more “trigger-proof” include:

  • Remove all substances/paraphernalia associated with your addiction.
  • Avoid going places where addictive behaviors commonly occur.
  • Surround yourself with people who support your recovery.
  • Ask friends/family not to engage in addictive behaviors around you.
  • Limit time with friends/family members who still actively engage in your addiction.
  • Block email, texts, calls from people/organizations linked to your addiction.
  • Install internet filters to block access to addictive online content.
  • Take a different route to avoid driving by high-risk places.
  • Keep your environment clean, clutter-free and relaxing.

Making your home and other spaces feel safe can help minimize encounters with external triggers. This reduces temptation and makes relapse less likely.

How can you prepare for known high-risk triggers?

There may be some triggering situations that are unavoidable. Holidays, family visits or social events may carry risk of exposure. In these cases, you can plan ahead to handle triggers skillfully:

  • Before the event, reflect on why it feels risky and identify likely triggers.
  • Decide if you need to set any rules or limits to make the situation safer.
  • Arrange transportation to avoid driving by high-risk places en route.
  • Have an accountability partner check in with you periodically.
  • Plan alternate coping strategies if cravings get strong.
  • Bring a supportive friend who knows about your recovery.
  • Identify a safe space you can retreat to if feeling triggered.
  • Limit time spent at the event to reduce exposure.
  • Schedule self-care activities for after the event to decompress.

Thorough preparation can help you feel empowered and in control when facing unavoidable trigger situations. You’ll know exactly how to respond if cravings surface.

How can you stop thoughts or memories from triggering you?

It’s very common for recurring intrusive thoughts or memories about using to arise as internal triggers. Strategies to manage these include:

  • Note when it happens – Make a mental note that this is just a thought, not a rational plan of action.
  • Get present – Focus intently on your senses – what you see, hear, feel around you in that moment.
  • Talk back – Verbalize internally that the thought does not control you or obligate you to act.
  • Shift your focus – Get involved in a productive task that keeps your mind occupied elsewhere.
  • Speak kindly – Avoid shaming yourself; instead offer encouragement that you can choose wisely.
  • Visualize yourself coping well – Picture yourself getting through the craving without giving in.

Learning to step back from addictive thoughts takes practice, but can greatly expand your freedom in recovery. You realize the thoughts do not define you.


Triggers, both internal and external, initiate the chain of psychological and neurological events that can lead to relapse. Understanding personal trigger patterns and establishing healthy coping strategies are key skills for interrupting the addiction cycle at the very beginning. With preparation, self-awareness and practice, triggers can be rendered powerless, and the addictive cycle broken.