What Are Addiction Triggers?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Imagine you’re walking down a familiar street, and suddenly, without warning, a familiar scent wafts through the air. Instantly, you’re transported back in time, to a period you’ve fought hard to move past. Your heart races, palms sweat, and the craving hits you like a wave. This involuntary journey, triggered by a mere scent, exemplifies the power of triggers in the realm of addiction.

Triggers are specific stimuli that evoke memories or sensations associated with substance use or addictive behaviors, leading to cravings or relapse.

Understanding and managing these triggers is crucial in addiction recovery. It’s about recognizing the power these external or internal cues have over behavior and learning strategies to navigate or diffuse their impact. Properly managing triggers can significantly reduce the risk of relapse, making it a cornerstone of successful, long-term recovery.

Types of Triggers

External Triggers

External triggers are elements outside of oneself that can evoke thoughts, feelings, or behaviors associated with addiction. These triggers can be diverse, ranging from people and places to things and media, each with its unique way of igniting a craving or a return to addictive behaviors. Recognizing and understanding these triggers is a critical step in managing them effectively.

  • People: Interacting with certain individuals or finding oneself in social situations that previously encouraged addictive behavior can act as a powerful trigger. This might include friends with whom one used to engage in substance use, or even family members whose presence or behavior unwittingly prompts a return to old habits.
  • Places: Specific locations or settings can serve as potent reminders of past addictive behaviors. This could be a bar, a friend’s house, or any place where substance use was a common activity. Merely being in these environments can trigger cravings and memories associated with addiction.
  • Media: Exposure to content related to addiction, whether through television, the internet, or advertisements, can trigger an intense desire to engage in addictive behaviors. This might involve seeing images of substances, watching characters in movies or TV shows use drugs, or encountering ads for alcohol.
  • Things: Often, the strongest external trigger is the presence of the substance itself or related paraphernalia. Encountering objects directly associated with addiction – such as bottles, syringes, or any tools used in the process – can immediately reignite cravings and the urge to relapse.

Understanding these external triggers is a foundational aspect of addiction recovery, enabling individuals to develop strategies to avoid or cope with them. By recognizing the specific people, places, media, and things that can lead to cravings, those in recovery can take proactive steps to maintain their progress and prevent relapse.

Internal Triggers

While external triggers originate from the environment, internal triggers are sourced from within an individual. These can be emotional states, physical sensations, or mental thought processes that reignite the desire for addictive substances or behaviors. Understanding these internal triggers is crucial for anyone in recovery, as it involves introspection and the development of coping mechanisms to manage them effectively.

  • Emotional: Emotions play a significant role in addiction and recovery. Feelings such as sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or even positive emotions like happiness and excitement can act as triggers. For example, someone might have used substances in the past to cope with negative emotions or to enhance positive ones, leading these emotional states to become closely linked with cravings.
  • Physical: Bodily sensations can also act as triggers. Pain, tiredness, or hunger are common physical sensations that might be mistakenly interpreted as cravings for a substance or addictive behavior. This misinterpretation can lead individuals to believe that engaging in addictive behaviors is a solution to alleviate these physical discomforts.
  • Mental: Thoughts or patterns of thinking that justify or glamorize addiction can serve as powerful internal triggers. This might include rationalizing “just one more time” or reminiscing about the perceived positives of substance use. Such mental processes can undermine recovery efforts by making the idea of relapse more appealing or acceptable.

Recognizing and addressing internal triggers is a complex but essential component of addiction recovery. It requires individuals to develop a deep understanding of their emotional states, physical sensations, and thought patterns. Through therapy, support groups, and personal reflection, those in recovery can learn to identify their internal triggers and employ strategies to manage them, thus reducing the risk of relapse and supporting long-term recovery.

Identifying Personal Triggers

Recognizing personal addiction triggers is a pivotal step in the recovery process. Each individual’s triggers are unique, shaped by their experiences, environment, and substance of choice. Identifying these triggers allows for the development of targeted strategies to manage and overcome them. Here are key approaches to recognizing personal addiction triggers:

Strategies for Recognizing Personal Addiction Triggers

  • Mindfulness and Awareness: Practicing mindfulness helps individuals become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, enabling them to recognize the early signs of triggers. Being present in the moment can illuminate the subtle cues that precede cravings or the desire to engage in addictive behaviors.
  • Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns in behavior, emotions, and thoughts that lead to cravings can help in identifying triggers. This involves reflecting on the circumstances and feelings that preceded past instances of substance use or addictive behavior.
  • Feedback from Others: Sometimes, friends, family, or therapists can offer insights into potential triggers that an individual might not have recognized. Open communication with a support network can provide a different perspective on behaviors and situations that may lead to substance use.

Keeping a Trigger Journal

Maintaining a journal or log is a practical strategy for tracking triggers and responses. This can include:

  • Documenting Instances of Craving or Relapse: Writing down when cravings occur, the intensity of these cravings, and what was happening at the time can reveal patterns over time.
  • Emotional and Physical State: Recording emotional states or physical sensations preceding cravings can help in identifying internal triggers.
  • Thoughts and Behaviors: Noting thoughts or behaviors that accompany cravings can shed light on mental triggers.

This log serves as a tangible record of an individual’s journey through recovery, offering valuable insights into the specific triggers they face and how they respond to them. Over time, this can guide the development of personalized strategies to manage these triggers effectively, reducing the risk of relapse and supporting long-term recovery.


Understanding and identifying addiction triggers, both external and internal, is a crucial aspect of the journey towards recovery. Recognizing the people, places, things, and emotional states that can lead to cravings is the first step in developing effective strategies to manage these triggers. By cultivating self-awareness, reflecting on personal experiences, and maintaining a journal, individuals in recovery can gain valuable insights into their unique triggers and how to navigate them.

Recovery is a deeply personal journey, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to remember that identifying and managing triggers is an ongoing process, one that requires patience, resilience, and support. Whether you’re in the early stages of recovery or further along on your path, know that you’re not alone.

If you find yourself struggling with addiction triggers or if you have questions about the recovery process, I invite you to reach out to me here. Support is a crucial component of recovery, and I’m here to provide guidance, resources, and a listening ear. Together, we can navigate the challenges of recovery and move towards a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Remember, every step forward, no matter how small, is a victory in the journey of recovery. You have the strength and the courage to overcome your triggers and build a life free from addiction.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

You May Also Like…

What Causes Gambling Addiction?

What Causes Gambling Addiction?

https://open.spotify.com/episode/1MdAw2KLcbYQ1pk3v7pT02?si=95ec586806b74982 It's a question you might be wondering as...


Leave a Reply