Dealing with Trauma Triggers in Recovery

A trauma trigger is basically anything that reminds you of a traumatic event, bringing up heavy and often overwhelming emotions. If a trigger is present, your body might feel like it’s actually re-experiencing the event. This means that you can internalize the trigger as danger, which can bring up anxiety, panic, stress, guilt, restlessness, and can even make you feel physically ill. For anyone who’s battled addiction, trauma triggers can be particularly dangerous because they can lead to excessive drug and alcohol abuse. And if you’re in recovery, it’s important to address your triggers when they arise in order to avoid reacting in ways that could lead to a relapse. 

Maybe you’ve witnessed violence, experienced physical or emotional abuse, or anything else that has threatened your physical or emotional integrity in the past. Whatever the traumatic event was, there’s a good chance that certain events, people, places, things, or situations could trigger you to re-experience the same feelings. If and when this happens, it’s good to have the tools to work through the trauma triggers so you’re not tempted to turn to drugs or alcohol. Here are some helpful strategies:

BREATHE. If and when you feel yourself become triggered by something, take a pause and work on staying present. Take a deep breath in through the nostrils and out through the mouth. Continue taking slow deep breaths until you’ve calmed down. A method that many people find helpful is box breathing because it forces you to really focus on your breathing only. To practice box breathing, take a deep breath in while counting to four slowly. Feel the air entering your lungs. Then, hold your breath for 4 seconds and try not to inhale or exhale. Finally, exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat this process until you feel centered. 

JOURNAL. Write down your feelings and what they mean to you. Then, consider whether or not what you’re currently experiencing is anything like the initial traumatic event. More than likely, it’s simply an emotional response that’s not actually indicative of any imminent danger. This isn’t to minimize what you’re experiencing—trauma triggers often feel quite overwhelming and scary, so go easy on yourself. But get those feelings down on paper so that you can start to process them and learn to recognize that they really are just feelings and not facts. There’s something about writing down heavy or overwhelming feelings that take their power away to some degree. It also gives you an action step before you reach for drugs or alcohol, and it’s often in these kinds of moments that you’ll be able to stop yourself from sabotaging your sobriety. 

SEPARATE YOURSELF. If it’s at all physically possible and it makes sense for you to remove yourself from the trigger entirely, do this. If not, establish firm boundaries for yourself and let anyone else around know what you are and are not comfortable with. This shows others you respect yourself while letting them know what you need in order to feel the same. Also, if you can’t remove yourself from the situation altogether, try removing some stimulus. 

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE YOU TRUST. Having a supportive network of friends and confidants that understand you and whom you trust is always a good idea, generally, but it’s particularly helpful in times of high stress. Identify who you can safely be around. These are the people who can hold you up and remind you that you are brave. 

DO THINGS YOU LOVE. Doing things that bring you joy (that don’t involve drugs, alcohol, or other compulsive behavior) can help you cope with triggers in the moment. These might include things like swimming, surfing, painting, going to the movies, reading a book, calling a friend or sponsor, new hobbies, or anything else that lights you up. Fill the time that you may once have spent drinking or using with healthy activities. This can help you to combat overwhelming emotions that, more often than not, have nothing to do with what’s happening in reality.    

ADOPT HEALTHY HABITS. This is a long-term thing. If you haven’t already incorporated a solid, healthy routine into your life, now is the time. This includes things like eating nourishing foods, exercising or moving your body daily, setting a regular sleep schedule, practicing meditation, and going to recovery meetings. In active addiction, most people spend so much time focused on getting high or drunk that having a healthy routine is typically not a priority. But having regular habits that nourish our minds, bodies, and our spirits can help us feel good all of the time without drugs or alcohol. This, in turn, helps us maintain the health of our nervous system so that we can face overwhelming feelings with much more calm and ease. 

MINDFUL MEDITATION. Mindfulness gives you the time and space to recognize that you’re not your thoughts and that you’re most definitely not your triggers. It’s a practice that gets easier when you do it daily. Start by simply sitting still in a quiet and comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Then, pay careful attention to what you’re experiencing—in this case, your trigger—without judgment or interpretation. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling without being hard on yourself for having the feeling or trigger in the first place. Just breathe through it. If you have trouble sitting in meditation for long periods, start with five-minute sessions and work your way up to twenty minutes, or even thirty minutes to an hour if you have the time. You’ll learn to locate that pause that happens in between your trigger and your reaction. And while the original trigger reaction may never disappear entirely, it can become something that happened in the past rather than something that still hurts. 

COUNSELING. It’s always a good idea to find a safe person that you can speak with regularly about your triggers. A counselor or mental health care provider is trained to guide you through difficult situations and triggers. First and foremost, these trained professionals can help you to understand that you’re not alone, and knowing this is empowering. They can also help you to understand your feelings and how to communicate them while providing you with new insights in relation to your triggers. In the end, counseling enables you to develop healthy coping skills to manage your recovery while focusing on the present and separating yourself from your trauma. 

MEETINGS. Regardless of whether or not you’ve finished a treatment program, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “cured” of addiction. While everyone’s situation is different, most people who identify as true-blue addicts are always going to need some type of ongoing support. The beautiful thing is that recovery support groups are usually free, and no one there should tell you what you absolutely must or must not do. As long as you have the desire to stay sober, you’re welcome in recovery groups. It also gives you an instant network of friends and acquaintances with a primary purpose to stay sober, so you guys can all lean on one another. Most addicts in recovery will have triggers of their own that they’ve worked through and are still working through. There’s really nothing that compares to having the support of others who understand you. Your fellows in recovery are your lifeline—don’t ever underestimate the power of a good recovery group. 

When all is said and done, experiencing triggers in recovery is totally normal, but it’s also something that you should be militant about addressing. Developing healthy coping skills to deal with triggers early on in your recovery will give you the best chance of success moving forward. If you experience something that triggers a strong emotional response, don’t sweep it under the rug. Let yourself feel it and talk to someone you trust. 

The great thing about recovery is that you no longer have the blanket of drugs and alcohol to hide under when you start feeling sour feelings. This means that you must face them. Sure, it can feel scary at first, but if you have the right tools, it can also be quite empowering. Facing your feelings lets you learn about yourself, giving you the insight you need to become the very best version of yourself that you can be. So, embrace your triggers and let yourself be held all the way through. Remember, you never have to walk this path alone. 


If you or someone you love is struggling to get sober or stay clean, Kembali Recovery Center can help. Contact us today to learn about our 28-day treatment program. 

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