Staying sober – sometimes it requires what can seem like superhero levels of restraint and dedication to your program. There are days when all of us struggle with recovery and days when it seems like a breeze. Surprisingly, it’s often the latter that poses the most risk to your long-term sobriety; it’s far too easy to get complacent when everything seems to be going your way. You’re not having cravings, and have no desire to drink; what harm could just one drink or a night out at the bar do?
Easily the single-most important relapse trigger is stress. Coincidentally, it’s also one of the most common relapse triggers that exist to date. Stress, and to a larger degree, whether we handle it effectively, can turn everyday cravings into something that seems insurmountable.
Several studies (including this one) demonstrate exactly how and why stress seems to increase the risk of relapse. The answer lies in the fact that stress and addiction both impact the reward centers of the brain. This includes endorphins and serotonin, both of which are responsible for killing pain and creating happiness in the body. When stress rises, your brain reacts to it in the same way it would if you sprained your wrist or got a papercut, releasing happy chemicals into the brain to soothe the feelings. It’s this roller coaster that can make you feel as if you need the drug or substance to cope even if you’ve been away from it for some time.
Early childhood trauma is a significant predictor of later addiction. Exactly why this correlation exists isn’t fully understood, but it likely has something to do with the fact that people who have unresolved trauma typically fare worse in areas like stress management, sleep, goal setting, and emotional literacy. For some, it’s because their childhood didn’t afford them the chance to learn and grow emotionally, while for others, it’s PTSD that holds them back.
Either way, neglecting to address your trauma can seriously increase your risk for relapse. Seeing a therapist who can help you to work through your past issues at a pace that’s best for you should always be a part of your overall recovery plan.
Excessive Caffeine Use
Wait…caffeine? Truthfully, yes. Overusing anything is a marker for potential relapse, whether it’s food, video games, or cigarettes. But caffeine is especially problematic for people who once struggled with stimulant addiction; take enough of it and it can cause a mild high that gives you just a taste of the stimulation you once had. For some addicts, that can nudge them just over the edge towards relapse when they otherwise wouldn’t.
Monitor yourself carefully for signs of relapse (like cravings). If you experience them, try switching to decaf, half-caf, or tea instead.
How many days per week do you find yourself rolling back into bed exhausted, ready to fall into a deep (and often not restful) sleep? If you’re driving yourself to exhaustion regularly, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Chronically being tired makes us cranky, edgy, and more prone to making poor decisions about our actions. It’s not hard to tell what exactly that can do with regard to relapse. When you wake up exhausted and facing the need to “adult”, relying on substances can be especially tempting. Avoid this pitfall by listening to your body and resting when necessary, no matter what you have going on.
Closely tied in with exhaustion is burnout. It leads both professionals and homemakers alike to turn to alcohol and drugs in vast numbers everyday. Just a few drinks here and a little bit of methamphetamine there, and you’re motivated to work during the worst days. Suddenly, what started as a tiny use to get you through the day becomes use all day right up until you fall asleep – if you even fall asleep in the first place.
Work-related burnout isn’t only a problem for addicts; it can spur on addiction, too. It’s easily one of America’s largest working and middle-class problems, especially with more people than ever working 50 or 60 hour weeks just to afford to live. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here; finding a job you can tolerate is best, but isn’t always possible. Therapy can help you to better manage the symptoms, too.
Untreated depression is at epidemic levels in our country. Because of the intense stigma that surrounds mental health struggles, and a generalized lack of ability to afford proper care, a great many Americans simply go without treating their depression until it’s too late. Depression and addiction, unfortunately, share a very close tie.
The biggest problem with depression lies in the fact that it can be insidious. It doesn’t always present typically; you may not experience sadness or despair, and you may not have suicidal thoughts. But other symptoms, like chronic pain, a lack of motivation, and feeling flat, can all point to depression, too. Worse yet, they all frequently spur on relapse.
As strange as it might seem, a small subset of people in recovery do experience recovery meetings as more triggering than they are helpful. This often relates to the quality of the group in question, not the concept of a recovery group in general. For example, if you attend a Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) group where the main focus is always on discussing stories from your past, it can start to become a bit like glorifying promiscuity and sex, rather than correcting maladaptive behaviors.
If you attend meetings and find that you often leave experiencing heavy cravings, it’s okay to dial things back a notch for a little while. Seek one-on-one therapy instead. Never leave yourself totally unsupported.
Poor self-image, particularly body image, can lead to eating disorders, depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and yes, even relapse or addiction. Constantly experiencing anxiety about your body or who you are is very common in addiction; often it’s a precursor and a strong indicator of a propensity to experience obsessive thoughts. Dual diagnoses of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), OCD, and Anorexia Nervosa (AD) or Bulimia Nervosa (BN) are all exceptionally common in addicts.
Learning to love yourself as you are is difficult, but it’s an important step in your recovery process. Until you discover that you are worth support and sobriety, you can’t possibly believe in yourself fully. A therapist can help you to work through these feelings in a healthy manner.
Lack of Socialization
Last, but not least, is one of the biggest challenges facing the recovering addict on a daily basis: lack of socialization. In early recovery, therapists frequently recommend avoiding common socialization areas like bars, licensed restaurants, casinos, and anywhere else that you might be triggered to use. While this is sound advice, at least for the first little while, it certainly doesn’t help to soothe feelings of loneliness. Everyone needs human contact now and again.
Bridge the gap by getting deeply involved with the recovery community. Join groups, clubs, and social outings that focus on sober fun without the risk. Don’t just go to meetings; seek out socialization with people who don’t drink or use substances, too. Attend a library book club, go to a weekly wellness group, or just spend time helping out at the community garden. You’ll feel better, you’ll get to know other sober people, and you’ll ease the loneliness, too.