How to Identify and Manage Your Emotional Triggers in Recovery

Emotional trigger tempting a relapse

Maintaining sobriety while in recovery is difficult, even in ideal circumstances. But unfortunately, life is anything but perfect. Frustrations, disappointments, setbacks, and negative emotional states can make staying sober difficult.

Emotional triggers for substance abuse can come from anywhere and at any time. Unlike physical triggers, like people, places, and things, which can largely be avoided, emotional cues are much harder to escape and can arise at almost any time. And because emotional states cannot be completely avoided, those in recovery must learn to identify and navigate the triggers when they arise.

What are Emotional Triggers?

Emotional triggers are strong, often unpleasant, and uncomfortable feelings that cause someone to want to relapse. Many people in active addiction use substances to dull or distract from negative emotions, thoughts, and memories, and while substances can temporarily numb the feelings, they don’t actually go away. The sentiments come back, leading to even more substance use. It’s a vicious cycle and a lifelong struggle for many.

This can make recovery even more challenging because the recovering person is managing the physiological and chemical withdrawal along with the emotional turmoil of unprocessed feelings. Emotional triggers can include stress, sadness, fear, frustration, anger, loneliness, regret, and more. While negative emotions may seem like the most obvious triggers for drug and alcohol use, other emotional states can also be powerful substance use triggers. Emotions like happiness and joy can actually be triggers if you previously used substances as a reward or celebratory activity.

Another common emotional trigger that may come as a surprise is boredom. Sobriety, especially early recovery, can be disorienting for the person entering into recovery who is accustomed to chaos and disorder. Many in recovery get hit with the “fear of missing out” and can recall fond memories of their past substance use while forgetting the consequences and fallout that led them to recovery.

How To Identify Your Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers are unique to each individual and can be difficult to identify for those new to sobriety or emotional regulation in general. Often, we simply react to our emotions as if they’re intrinsic to who we are without evaluating their cause or the effect of them. This can keep us stuck in patterns of unhelpful behavior as we act on our emotions, regardless of the impact that reaction has on our relationships, health, and sobriety.

Being aware and practicing mindfulness regarding your mental state is the first and best step to take when trying to identify and manage strong emotional triggers. Questions to ask yourself to be more mindful include:

  • Why did I get [mad/sad/frustrated/bored]?
  • What was happening right before I felt this emotional trigger?
  • What was my immediate physiological reaction [racing heart, clenched fists, tears]?
  • Was the emotional cue reasonable in response to this instance, or am I adding my own history to this situation, making me feel more strongly than I might otherwise?
  • How have I reacted to similar situations, and how effective or ineffective was that reaction to my overall health and well-being?

Mindfulness isn’t about dismissing or disregarding the emotion or the feeling. It’s about recognising, accepting, and reacting consciously instead of instinctively. Being mindful is also a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most people and has to be developed, like building a muscle.

Creating A Set of Coping Skills

Knowing your emotional triggers doesn’t help much if you don’t know how to handle them when they arise. Breaking the cycle of managing emotions with drugs and alcohol can be a challenge, but a great set of personalized coping strategies can be a lifeline in the event of an emotional trigger

Here are just a few examples of strategies to try:

  • Call or text a friend. A good, supportive listening ear is amazing for working through complicated emotions.
  • Deep breathing techniques. Breathing exercises have a meditative and calming effect and can be done from anywhere.
  • Get physically active. Playing a sport, lifting some weights, or even just going for a walk can do wonders for an emotionally triggered state.
  • Log your experience in a journal. Keeping a record of the events, emotional responses, and how you’re working through them is perfect for mindfulness and self-reflection.
  • Connect with your recovery network. Meeting with recovery groups are great for replacing feelin, like feeling connection when feeling alone.
  • Seek out counselling. Therapists and counselors are trained in managing complicated emotional cues and triggers. Having a trained professional in your corner can be a fantastic resource.

Getting Help for Emotional Regulation and a Substance Use Disorder

Learning to manage your emotional triggers in sobriety on your own is incredibly difficult, which is why many in recovery seek support and a strong community. If you want to speak to a trained professional and live in the United States, look for The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) treatment locator.  The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is a good place to start in Canada.  There are offices of the CMHA dedicated to each different part of Canada, like the British Columbia Division, for instance.

There are also millions of people in recovery who are happy to lend an ear and connect, offer advice, and work through recovery and other tough life-transitions with you. For example, the 12-Step community of Alcoholics Anonymous or one of the variations, like Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, or Al-Anon (a support group for families of those who are struggling with a substance use disorder) offers a huge community of people in recovery helping other people in recovery.  For those whom the 12-Step paradigm does not resonate, there are also many alternatives, like SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.). and LifeRing Secular Recovery.

If you are in crisis, you can also call the suicide hotline by dialing or calling 1-822-456-4566 in Canada (604-872-3311 in the Greater Vancouver Area) or 988 in the United States.

About the Author 

Bill Arbuckle has worked in the field of addictions treatment since 2009. Bill specializes in treating addiction and trauma using Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (A.E.D.P.) and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (E.M.D.R.).

Bill also has personal experience with addiction and substance use. He found the way out, back to the light, and works to help others do the same.  He is the founder of Hard Road Counselling, a practice that specializes in addiction counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia.