By Paul Brethen
As people around the world have sheltered in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, those going through recovery have an additional layer of struggle. Due to the stress of isolation, there has been a high rate of relapse during the lockdown, making it more difficult for people who abused drugs or alcohol to return to everyday life due to shame or the stress of re-addiction. While stay-at-home orders presented significant challenges for those in recovery, the simple act of going back into the world can reintroduce and compound triggers. You may be excited to dine in a restaurant once again, gather with friends or simply be out of the house for some much-needed alone time, but getting back to a “normal” routine should be broached with care. Here are a few ways to deal with triggers that may pop up as you wade back into the world.
Identify potential triggers
The first step is to identify potential triggers so that you can be prepared to handle those situations and overcome any cravings that might accompany them. Consider if any of the following pertain to your plans to venture out into the world:
- Visiting high-risk places where you used to drink or use including bars, clubs, concerts, neighborhoods, your workplace or friends’ homes or other gathering places.
- Visiting with high-risk people such as old acquaintances, certain relatives, friends or colleagues that could trigger cravings.
- Having your freedom again to roam the earth can lead to anxiety for those who have had a watchful eye on you. Family members may have become comfortable with you staying home, but now that you are free it can lead to suspicions and arguments which can trigger you to use again. You might get frustrated when you are falsely accused of drinking or using, which in itself can cause a relapse.
- Getting out of lockdown can increase emotional triggers over anxiety or fears of finding work, greater risk of getting COVID-19, exposures to additional external triggers or just the need to let loose, party and have fun. Powerful emotions can quickly lead to high-risk behaviors that threaten your sobriety.
Coping with triggers
Once you have identified the specific triggers that may impact your recovery, make a plan to give you the highest chance of success:
Find support – Attending support groups or 12-step meetings may still be difficult. With social distancing orders being modified, in-person meetings may still be unable to convene due to a limit on the number of people at gatherings or reduced access to meeting places. You may find support either in online meetings or virtual recovery apps. See if your sponsors and supporters of your sobriety are available by phone.
Make a schedule – Create a plan and schedule for each day with safe people in safe places so as not to be caught off guard while moving around. Your schedule should include a time to wake up, shower, get ready for the day, go to a safe place and meet safe people. It should also include a time to be home and a time to go to bed.
Communication – Family that has gotten used to keeping track of you may struggle with this new freedom. Sit down with them and have an open conversation. Communicate your intent to stay sober and share how you plan to cope with any triggers. This will help build trust and may relieve tensions in the home, ultimately leading to less stress and anxiety, and fewer feelings of resentment caused by family assumptions.
Know you can leave – If you do find yourself in an unexpected situation that you feel is triggering, it’s okay to simply leave. Where meaningful relationships are a concern, explain why you need to leave to avoid resentments or misunderstandings. Recovery involves people who care about you and sometimes need direction in how to be supportive. Sometimes you may just need to take a break, go for a walk/drive and return later, or leave altogether depending on the level of your comfort. Sometimes removing yourself from a situation can bring clarity.
Have something to do – Triggers can sneak up on us at any time. Even with the best planning, you can’t avoid all triggers. Prepare a strategy to distract yourself from cravings. Have a book in your car or bag, or listen to an audio book, some healing music or an interesting podcast. Depending on where you are, you may even be able to do a quick yoga flow or meditation session. Have something you can do in your back pocket to help you cope and take your mind off the feeling of wanting to use.
Navigate with a plan
The best way to venture into the newly reopening world is to have a plan. That means knowing what can trigger cravings and actively avoiding those people and places. Additionally, if you do find yourself in a situation that is triggering, make sure to have some coping mechanisms that you can tap into to help you through that moment. After all, it is only a moment, and with preparation you can help it pass. If you have had a relapse during isolation, you’re not alone. Don’t let shame control how you move forward. Take each day at a time and reach out to people and places that support your sobriety.
Paul Brethen is the co-founder of SoberBuddy, an evidence-based virtual drug and alcohol recovery coach. Paul has over 20 years of experience as a certified addiction specialist. Prior to joining SoberBuddy, Brethen worked at the Matrix Institute on Addiction as a Clinical and Administrative Director where he helped develop the highly recognized Matrix Treatment Model. He’s also worked as an international consultant training those who work in the field of drug and alcohol substance dependency. In 2009, Paul founded Net for Hope Foundation, an international NGO established to transform underdeveloped communities in Uganda. Paul is a Certified Addiction Specialist and a licensed Marriage, Family Therapist