By: Marilyn L. Davis


“Relapse doesn’t have to be part of recovery any more than return has to be part of cancer.”― Toni Sorenson


Who and What to Avoid


Counselors, therapists, sponsors, and supportive friends, all caution about avoiding people, places, and situations that prompt us to think about using. While these external triggers are powerful, other internal triggers are equally problematic.

In recovery, we need to be mindful of the effect of our emotions and thinking. Start with these eight common relapse triggers and notice if you dwell more on returning to use when you engage in these.


Examine Your Thoughts and Feelings


A simple exercise includes looking at your thoughts and later statements about the seven indicators of relapse thinking. Start by asking yourself, “Have I been….”


1. Overly Confident or Cocky


While deciding to stop using was an important decision, it is easy to get overly confident about our recovery unless behavioral and attitudinal changes follow that decision.

It is reasonable to feel proud of our positive decisions. However, when cockiness replaces pride, we may be headed back to a relapse.

In recovery, most of us exhibited other behaviors, cognitive distortions, or thinking falsehoods that were just as harmful to our lives as our use.

Without examining the other actions and behaviors, making an effort to change or modify them, we can still experience unhappiness in our lives, frequently leading us back to drug and alcohol use.


2. Complacent: Self-righteous Attitudes or Being Smug


Complacency typically sets in when individuals think they know all there is to know about a subject or that no one can teach them anything else. In our recovery, when we get complacent and take for granted that we possess all the answers, the slightest setback can blindside us when we realize that our knowledge is limited.

We know how to deal with many aspects of our recovery; however, just as a business that does not grow will become stagnant, our recovery is the same.

For instance, if you attended recovery support meetings, you may not participate in as many as you did when you first got into recovery. Instead, you now use that time to volunteer for a charity or are more involved with your children’s school or sports activities.


3. Thinking You Don’t Still Need Meetings


Granted, the solutions that we use at thirty years differ from those that we used at thirty days; however, there are still many fundamentals of early recovery that I participate in, even if the focus has changed.

When I returned from treatment in 1988, my employer mandated me to attend two recovery support meetings a day as a condition of continued employment. It seemed a small price to pay to retain my job. While I still participate in some meetings, it is to join in a celebration, catch up with people I worked with over the years, or see people who helped me early in my recovery. This shift in the motive for attendance means that I still find value in the recovery support meetings; it is just that the focus has changed. 

However, suppose I thought that I would not hear anything of interest, that I was the only one with anything worthwhile to say, or that there was nothing new in recovery. In that case, I might want to reconsider my motive as I could be a little complacent. When we notice these things about our thinking or attitude, we must remove that smug attitude.


4. Dishonesty


When we start telling “white lies,” small untruths, justifying or making excuses that are not true, this can be just one step removed from beginning to lie to yourself about your addiction or your recovery. I like the analogy of a mountain and a marble. Imagine tripping over a mountain; I know most of you are laughing, wanting to remind me how large a mountain is.

Rightfully so, however, if I put a small marble on the ground and you are unaware of it, I guarantee someone will trip over it. The little things trip us up. It is the same with white lies.


5. Expecting Too Much from Ourselves or Others


We often create the illusion that everything else should fall into place once we quit drinking and using. Alternatively, we realize how much time we squandered in our use, feel guilty, and think we should be doing too many things for one person to accomplish in a month; yet we overload our daily schedules, trying to make up for the lost time.

Some of us create expectations of others and then get frustrated when they are not doing what we think they ought to do; this happens when we do not tell them our expectations but assume that they ought to know what we want or need.

Unless the expectations are stated and realistic, expecting others to conform to our standards is merely setting us up. It can lead to a defeatist attitude of, “What’s the use or point in all of this?”

Expecting others to do as you say, make the same types of changes, or conform to your bidding can set you up, too. The reality is that we cannot control anyone else. It is much easier to control our thoughts, actions, reactions, and behaviors.


6. Operating from Self-pity


When we feel sorry for ourselves about our past life, current situations, losses from our use, or all we need to do now that we are in recovery, we overlook other options. 

We can write about our feelings in a journal, which provides a cathartic release.

Some of us are hesitant to pour our hearts out on paper; however, the benefit is that we remove the feelings inside our heads and hearts to the paper.

I write the old school way for my journal. It engages me more than on my computer; I also added the visual release of emotions by using pens in different colors, and if my feelings were so intense that they tore the paper, I did not care; they were coming out of me.

  • If you’re angry, write in red. 
  • When you’re sad, write in blue.
  • If you’re feeling jealous, write in green. 

I cried as I wrote some things – the wasted time using when my daughters were small, a time I would never recapture, yet I found release and did not relapse through the writing.


7. Given Too Much, Too Soon: Did We Earn It? 


Without a solid foundation in recovery, having too much too soon can set us up for becoming cocky or complacent. This does not mean we need to suffer in our early recovery; however, some people process the benefits they receive as “owed” for not using. Not using is a benefit and needs to be valued for its worth.

Too much time without productive activities means that some of us will spend it in our heads, which can be a problem in early recovery. We obsess about our past, our future, anything but the present moment.

Rather than this, try volunteering, chair a meeting, reach out to someone with less time than you, and buy them coffee.

Since our money is not going to facilitate our addiction, when there are extra monies, it is an excellent time to think of others who are struggling financially or are not in a position to buy a six-dollar cup of coffee. At about six months, I started donating to a soup kitchen and eventually increased my donations as I learned to budget.


8. Unresolved Issues


In early recovery, several issues come up, like childhood abandonment, sexual abuse, PTSD, or neglect. For some people, how they behaved in their use creates shame and guilt, two emotions that people relapse over when they do not have support or other coping skills.

Drugs and alcohol masked or numbed many of the associated feelings about these unresolved issues, and many people find it helpful to seek professional help for them. Communities often provide free or fee-scale services for sexual abuse survivors, PTSD groups, or other forms of therapy. 

 We need to find a way to cope with the issues in our recovery, although it is not easy to confront the past. Working with a trained counselor or therapist is safe and can help resolve some issues.


Mindful of the Risky Attitudes


People mistakenly think that risky attitudes and triggers indicate that they are doing something wrong; however, they are the usual random thoughts and attitudes that happen to everyone in recovery at some point. When we are mindful of our triggers, we are not as likely to be taken by surprise when they occur. 

If we are not prepared for them, these eight risky attitudes can develop into a more significant problem and become the basis for a relapse. Click To Tweet

For many of us, the problematic thinking starts weeks or months before a relapse – a fleeting thought, yet if we do not bring these thoughts into our consciousness, they continue to get bigger.

We may start embellishing the original thought and magnify it out of proportion. When we start being mindful of our thinking, we learn to manage and cope with the initial thoughts and feelings, which can forestall a relapse.



Avoiding the Triggers, We Protect our Recovery


Research online for time management templates to help structure the time; it will be necessary to find ways to fill the time that we usually spend waiting for a phone call, our drugs to be ready, or incarcerated with our lives on hold.

Other people try to fill each moment and become overwhelmed with all they schedule. Learning about valuing and managing time can relieve some of the stresses.

Whether a calendar on a computer or the paper variety, seeing where you spent your time, energy, and effort can help you stay in balance.

In the end, it’s easier to change these eight detrimental behaviors, thoughts, and actions than to risk relapsing and perhaps not make it back. 

When we value our recovery, we create methods and exercises to protect it. We don’t avoid the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings but examine them to help us prevent a relapse.


Writing and recovery heal the heart. 



Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at From Addict 2 Advocate and Two Drops of Ink. She is also the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Indie Books, and Books A Million.  

For editing services, contact her at 


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