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What Are The Most Common Causes of Addiction Relapse?

Addiction relapse is a topic that has the power to spark a great deal of fear both for individuals on the path to recovery and their loved ones. In spite of that fear, however, it’s important to understand why relapse occurs, and to be prepared for the possibility that it will occur. Unfortunately, even with the best treatment, many individuals suffer from some form of relapse in their life after drug and alcohol rehab. This is because, among other things, addiction rewires the brain in significant ways that are difficult to repair and change; once you have developed an addiction, your brain forms neural pathways that support that addiction—and while you can form new neural pathways, it is very difficult to make the old ones go away completely. This doesn’t mean that treatment is not the answer—and it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a healthy and satisfying life in recovery—but it does mean that you should be vigilant about events and items that can trigger you to start using again.

Addiction is a Psychological Disease; Triggers are Psychological

The most common triggers for relapse for addicts in recovery are boredom, fear, and negative emotions. It has long been said that an idle mind is the devil’s playground; this is true for almost everyone, addicts and non-addicts alike. In the case of addicts, however, this proverb takes particular meaning. Boredom leads addicts to start using for a number of reasons—namely, that it’s an “easy” way to stop being bored, and the brain has been coached to go for the easiest solution to a problem. The way that most treatment centers teach addicts how to avoid this trigger is to work with them to develop a daily routine. While it certainly isn’t a good idea to fill your metaphorical plate with more tasks and responsibilities than you possibly have time or energy to commit to, having things to do every day, engagements to make it to, appointments to keep, will keep you from being bored. Other tactics include developing new hobbies or finding new outlets for old interests; if you discover that you enjoy classic cars, you can fill the hours you would normally be bored with working on rebuilding a classic car, for example. Or if you find that your sober life inspires you to be creative, you can work on a piece of art, some poetry—the possibilities are endless. Even mundane hobbies are something you can use to fend off boredom.

Another major trigger for addicts is fear and negative emotions. Most addicts become addicted because they experienced a great deal of negativity in some form or another—and their addictions helped them to soothe fears, or comfort themselves in moments of pain. Of course, what started out as a self-soothing activity to cope with negativity becomes a negative source all on its own, and rapidly pushes out all positivity in an addict’s life; but the important thing to keep in mind is that the brain is wired to associate drugs with coping—a dangerous association. It’s also vital to remember that there is no way to avoid all fear, and all negative situations and feelings. The way to prevent this trigger from getting to you is to learn new coping skills; meditation, breathing exercises, and other forms of self-care can be a great way to lead a happier life and avoid a relapse.

Physical Triggers Exist as Well

While the majority of relapses are caused at root by psychological issues, if you have the trigger but no access to the drug you’re addicted to, there’s no way for you to indulge it. In addition to boredom, fear, and negative emotions, exposure to the object of one’s addiction is a major cause of relapse. It takes only a few moments of the “right” mindset for a person to go from being able to tolerate being in a bar without drinking to desiring a drink with all their mind. By the same token, being around other drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamines can trigger a relapse simply by proximity. In some cases (such as in the case of alcohol) it isn’t that easy to avoid the trigger—since alcohol is socially accepted, it appears all over the place, even in many grocery stores. But if you find yourself entertaining the kind of mindset that you know may lead you to use, it’s a good idea to steer clear of any environment that might expose you to your drug of choice. Drop in on a meeting, talk to a Sponsor, do whatever you can rationally to keep yourself safe. Drug and alcohol treatment is a major step in the road to recovery, but the skills you learn in rehab have to be applied in your post-treatment life.


Our articles are written by individuals who have seen addiction up close. They may have watched addiction take a toll on someone they loved or had their own battles with substances, and they write for us to spare others some of that pain and confusion. If you find these writings useful and would like to speak to someone who gets addiction, call us at (844) 826-1700.

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