Understanding and managing alcohol triggers

Exploring internal and external alcohol triggers, and how to recognise and manage them.

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Alcohol addiction is a complex issue that affects people differently. Part of each person’s battle with addiction is their own unique triggers. Alcohol triggers can vary greatly from person to person and understanding them is a crucial element of specialist addiction treatment and a step towards recovery and a healthy future.

In this article, we'll explore the nature of alcohol triggers, how to identify them and provide strategies to manage them effectively.

What are alcohol triggers?

Alcohol triggers are specific scenarios, feelings, or experiences that increase the likelihood of a person craving or consuming alcohol. These can be emotional states, environmental factors, social situations, or even specific times of the day.

Understanding your triggers is the first step in learning how to cope with them and overcome alcohol cravings, which is an important aspect of maintaining sobriety and preventing relapse.

Perspectives: staying sober (or cutting down) over winter

Join our expert panel on Perspectives, a series from Priory that delves into the biggest issues in mental health and addictions. In this episode, we discus staying sober or cutting down over winter - including recognising your triggers.

Recognising your triggers

Recognising your triggers is a critical skill in getting and staying sober. It involves identifying the situations, emotions or people that increase the risk of relapse.

Here are examples of strategies, typically used as part of specialist addiction therapy, to help you recognise your triggers:

  • Keep a trigger diary: Track instances when you feel a sudden urge to drink. Note the time, place, people you’re with, and what was happening. Over time, you’ll see patterns that help you identify your triggers
  • Reflect on past relapses: Analysing moments when you’ve relapsed can reveal common triggers. Look for the emotions, events, or environments that preceded the decision to drink
  • Listen to your body: Your body often gives physical signals when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or sad, such as increased heart rate, sweating, or tension. Recognising these can alert you to potential triggers before you're fully aware of them mentally
  • Assess your emotional state: Often, negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, or anger can make you want to reach for a drink. By regularly checking in with yourself emotionally, you can identify potential triggers based on how you feel
  • Review your social interactions: Think about the social situations that make you uncomfortable or increase your cravings for alcohol. It could be certain people or types of interactions that serve as triggers
  • Observe environmental cues: Pay attention to places or times of the day that increase your cravings. Do you feel an urge to drink when you pass by a certain location or when you’re in a specific setting?

Internal alcohol triggers

Internal alcohol triggers can stem from a range of emotional and psychological states. It’s not just the negative emotions that can serve as triggers; sometimes, even positive feelings or moods can lead people to want to celebrate with alcohol.

Examples of internal alcohol triggers include:

  • Stress and anxiety: Work pressure, financial worries or family disputes can fuel stress and anxiety - creating a powerful urge to drink as a means of escape or temporary relief
  • Sadness or depression: During periods of low mood, some people may turn to alcohol to lift their spirits or numb painful feelings. However, it’s important to remember that alcohol is a depressant, and regular drinking can make your feelings of sadness even worse, and lead to a harmful cycle
  • Loneliness or boredom: People who are isolated may start drinking, especially if they feel lonely, bored or have a lack of stimulation. The temporary solace found in drinking can prevent the person from getting more constructive and healthy forms of social support, or doing other activities to relieve boredom
  • Celebration: Positive feelings and celebrations can also act as triggers for drinking. The association of alcohol with good times can make it seem like an essential part of celebrating. It's crucial to find other ways to share joy that don't involve alcohol
  • Confidence and self-esteem: Some people may drink to feel more confident or to increase their self-esteem. Alcohol can temporarily reduce inhibitions and anxiety, but this is a short-lived effect and doesn’t contribute to long-term self-assurance

External alcohol triggers

External triggers are the elements in our environment or daily routines that can lead to alcohol cravings. They're usually easier to identify than internal triggers, but might need some planning to help manage them.

Below are several common external triggers:

  • Social events and celebrations: Gatherings such as weddings, work events, or birthdays, where alcohol is present, can act as significant triggers. The sight and smell of alcohol, as well as the social pressure to drink, can be challenging. Certain times of the year when celebrating is common, such as Christmas, can also be a dangerous period for people with alcohol addiction
  • Places associated with drinking: Bars, clubs or even certain restaurants might remind you of past drinking behaviours. These aren't just locations where alcohol is available, but places where your routine usually involves drinking
  • Seeing alcohol: Visual cues, such as seeing alcohol in adverts, films or when you’re in the supermarket, can provoke cravings. The prevalence of alcohol in the media and public spaces means these triggers can appear unexpectedly
  • End of a workday or workweek: The routine of having a drink to unwind after a stressful day or week at work can become an ingrained habit, making it a potent trigger for people who use alcohol as a relaxation tool
  • Negative life events: Financial difficulties, relationships breakdowns, job loss, and bereavement are just a few examples of life scenarios that might trigger heavy drinking, as you try to escape from the stress surrounding your life. Anniversaries of these events can also lead to an urge to drink to numb any pain that resurfaces

How to manage your triggers: nine strategies

Managing triggers is a fundamental part of the recovery process from alcohol addiction. Here are some effective strategies you can employ:

  • Work on being present: Mindfulness is a key technique for managing alcohol triggers. It helps us to become present in the moment, and not flustered by stress or anxiety. Work on grounding techniques so you can stay present and recognise any emotions that might be triggering
  • Create a support system: Surround yourself with people who understand your journey and are committed to helping you stay sober. This can include friends, family, therapists or support groups
  • Practise self-help techniques: Mental health issues are a common trigger for drinking, so developing healthy ways to cope is a good idea. Techniques like deep breathing exercises, yoga or meditation can be beneficial
  • Plan ahead: When avoidance is impossible, planning ahead is essential. This might mean having an exit strategy for social events, bringing a non-alcoholic beverage with you, or having a trusted friend on standby for support
  • Delay: When you feel the urge to drink, delay the decision. Give yourself 30 minutes to engage in a different activity. You’ll find the urge will pass or diminish, giving you time to reconsider the impulse
  • Engage in healthy activities: Fill the void that alcohol left with positive activities. Whether it’s sports, hobbies, learning something new or volunteering, engaging in fulfilling activities can provide a sense of accomplishment and joy without alcohol

Blog reviewed by Dr Radu Iosub (MBBS, MRCPsych, CCT in General Adult and Addiction Psychiatry), Visiting Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Bristol.

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