10 Ways To Identify A Loved One’s Triggers During The Holidays

on October 18, 2022

People recovering from addiction during the holidays may face several triggers, including stress, trauma-related issues, mental health concerns, and seeing old family and friends associated with substance abuse.

How To Identify A Loved One's Triggers During The Holidays

For your loved ones in addiction recovery, the holidays can be a very testing time for their recovery.

Activities and festivities that come naturally to us may be mentally straining and difficult for our loved ones in addiction recovery.

Learn how to prepare yourself and your loved ones for the upcoming holidays to support their recovery process.

What Is A Trigger?

A trigger is a stimulus that elicits a reaction, a key element in the craving response that can lead to relapse.

You can have both external triggers (such as witnessing drug use) and internal triggers (such as having symptoms of anxiety or depression).

A trigger is something that usually results in a mental or physical response. Your loved one might mentally respond to a trigger by planning to purchase drugs or alcohol later that day.

A physical response to a trigger might look like purchasing drugs or alcohol.

Common Triggers For Those In Addiction Recovery Over The Holidays

When everyone is standing around the fireplace having a glass of wine, your loved one in recovery may be fighting off unwanted urges and thoughts.

If you want to be an advocate for your loved one recovering from substance abuse, you should first be aware of the triggers they’ll likely come in contact with so you can help them to respond appropriately.

If your loved one completed an inpatient or outpatient drug rehab program, they may have identified a few of their triggers. The best way to learn what your loved one’s triggers are is to ask them.

Below, we’ll discuss 10 of the most common triggers people in recovery face around the holidays.

1. Frustration-Related Triggers

In a study published in 2020 evaluating triggers of addiction, researchers found that frustration plays a vital role in triggers for people in addiction recovery.

They define frustration as the emotional result of what’s expected (what someone needs in recovery) and what’s found.

What a person finds frustrating is subjective. It could include anything from an irritating conversation to a family member breaking a boundary time and time again.

Over the holidays, your loved one may experience one or more of the following frustration-related triggers:

  • disappointment
  • lack of control
  • unwanted conversations about difficult topics
  • inability to participate in certain traditions
  • decreased social stamina
  • emotional issues

2. Stress-Related Triggers

Researchers in the aforementioned study found that frustration, a subjective personal factor, can trigger a negative perception of reality, which is also seen in stress-related disorders.

People who have experienced drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental illness, trauma, and early child abuse all share similar brain alterations.

This includes:

  • decreased volume of the hippocampus, which is vital for memory
  • decreased volume of the anterior cingulate cortex, which affects empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making
  • a decreased prefrontal cortex response, another key component of decision-making

All of these factors combined mean that stress-related issues can be a major threat to sobriety for someone in recovery. This is because their brains have been rewired with lower functionality in areas needed to make good decisions and control impulses.

Here are some of the stress-related triggers your loved one might see over the holidays:

  • responsibility (such as being in charge of cooking large quantities of food)
  • planning
  • tense relationships
  • time management
  • unexpected events

3. Anxiety-Related Triggers

Anxiety and substance abuse are closely linked. A recent study shows that it’s likely they even involve the same area of the brain, the bed nucleus of stria terminalis (BNST).

The BNST becomes activated during a type of adaptive anxiety called threat monitoring as well as during drug and alcohol withdrawal and relapse.

This could make anxiety-based triggers particularly problematic for those in recovery.

The following are some anxiety-related triggers your loved one might experience over the holidays:

  • uncontrollable worry
  • difficulty concentrating>
  • muscle tension
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • racing thoughts

4. Family-Related Triggers

Not everyone enjoys close relationships with their family members. For some, their family is a strong support network for recovery; but for others, family can be less reliable.

Even for those who love their family and want to be around them, too much family time can be overwhelming.

Here are some of the family-related triggers to be aware of during the holiday season:

  • extended time with family members
  • seeing old family members
  • spending time with family members who do not support their recovery
  • spending time with family members who use drugs or alcohol
  • discussing triggering topics with family members, such as traumatic events or political views

5. Substance-Related Triggers

One of the most common triggers over holidays such as the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve is witnessing others drinking alcohol, smoking, or doing drugs.

On Christmas, we serve spiked eggnog, New Year’s Eve may be spent clubbing or bar hopping, and Thanksgiving may involve casual drinking or drug use.

For those recovering from addiction, it can be difficult to watch other people use substances. It may induce stress, generate cravings, or even produce nostalgia for their substance use.

These substance-related triggers might look like:

  • seeing friends drink or use drugs
  • seeing friends or family members associated with past substance use
  • going places associated with past alcohol or drug use
  • being around drugs or alcohol

6. Trauma-Related Triggers

Some triggers may stem from deep trauma-related issues from childhood, young adulthood, or more recent years.

These triggers may induce a fear response, stress response, or emotional disturbance, each of which can be painful to cope with and lead to substance use.

Some of the trauma-related triggers that can resurface over the holidays include:

  • seeing family members or friends related to the abuse or trauma
  • discussing difficult topics that remind your loved one of the event
  • physical touch
  • arguments or disagreements
  • remembering the death of a loved one and missing their presence
  • mental health issues

It’s best to work through these issues with a therapist in a professional setting using trauma-focused therapy and techniques.

Others may benefit from group therapy, peer support groups, a free rehab program, or another program designed to address deep-seated issues such as trauma and their relation to addiction.

7. Emotional Triggers

Spending a lot of time with family members during the holidays can bring up a lot of emotions, both pleasant and difficult.

You can recognize emotional triggers in your loved one by the often drastic, negative changes in mood they cause.

Some examples of typical emotional triggers during the holidays include:

  • unjust treatment (such as feeling like they have to talk about their recovery when they don’t want to)
  • challenged beliefs
  • being excluded or ignored (such as not being given a glass for toasting because they are in recovery)
  • feeling unwanted or unneeded
  • betrayal

Feelings of boredom or even happiness can also be emotional triggers if these states of mind caused your loved one to want to use a substance in the past.

Checking in with themselves by getting a few moments alone, focusing on the breath and any sensations they’re feeling, and trying to see the humor in the situation can be helpful ways to manage emotional triggers.

8. Anger-Related Triggers

Heightened stress during the holidays can put people on high alert, just waiting for an anticipated threat. Then, when and if that situation does arise, they might react with anger.

In fact, anger has been shown to serve an evolutionary purpose as an adaptation of the fight-or-flight response, protecting us from danger.

However, anger isn’t always easy to spot, because people show it in a wide variety of ways, such as by yelling or throwing things, crying, or withdrawing.

Some anger triggers your loved one might experience this time of year include:

  • blaming and shaming
  • misinformation related to their recovery
  • others constantly in their personal space
  • emotional abuse, including some forms of teasing
  • disrespect

9. Financial Triggers

When someone is living with an active addiction, financial problems are usually a given. It can be hard to maintain a steady income, plus there’s the cost of buying drugs or alcohol.

This can make having cash in hand a trigger for some, and cash is a popular gift to give over the holidays. Consider giving a physical gift instead.

Other financial triggers during the holiday season include:

  • not being able to afford gifts for loved ones
  • overspending
  • making a number of financial decisions at once
  • worrying excessively about finances

10. High-Risk Situations

Your loved one might have drunk alcohol or used drugs every time they went to a party. This would make parties a high-risk situation for their recovery.

High-risk situations typically involve two categories of experiences: intrapersonal and interpersonal.

Examples of high-risk intrapersonal experiences include:

  • negative emotions
  • physical discomfort
  • temptation and urge<
  • positive emotions, such as feeling good about their recovery and thinking “just this one time” they could use a substance

Examples of high-risk interpersonal experiences include:

  • conflict with others
  • social pressure
  • pressure times

Of the former, negative emotions were the main driver of relapse in a recent survey of 609 people with an SUD. Of the latter, conflict with others was the main cause.

The more these experiences occur, the greater the risk of relapse can be, making the holidays a high-risk situation for many.

Factors That Influence Your Loved One’s Likelihood Of Staying Sober

Researchers have identified a few key components of a person’s recovery that affect their sobriety.

These include:

  • severity of the addiction: A person who’s been addicted to substances for several years may struggle to break certain habits and resist cravings, especially around the holidays.
  • degree of commitment to treatment: Someone who is highly committed to recovery will likely have stricter protocols around triggers, stress, and social engagements.
  • level of social support: Researchers have found that those who have little to no social support are much more likely to relapse than someone with strong support.
  • ability to afford the cost of treatment: If your loved one can’t pay for treatment, they can’t recover. The ability to pay for treatment is a major indicator of recovery success.

Each of these factors can contribute to what might trigger your loved one, and their likelihood to relapse if a trigger occurs.

Consider these factors when assessing each of the potential triggers your loved one might encounter over the holidays.

If your loved one does not have insurance to cover the cost of addiction treatment, consider looking into other options such as:

How To Talk About Triggers With Your Loved One

The best way to determine your loved one’s triggers is to ask them.

If they’ve gone through counseling or an alcohol or drug abuse treatment program, they’ve likely already learned what those triggers are.

However, these conversations can often seem tricky, as many loved ones of those in recovery worry that bringing up painful topics might spur substance use or cause painful recollections.

While it can be difficult to talk about triggers, and the conversation should be handled with respect and care, it’s important to learn them so you can be a better support system for them.

Here are a few examples of questions you can ask your loved one regarding their triggers:

  1. Are there any triggers you’re particularly concerned about over the holidays?
  2. Have you discovered anything that seems to work well if you feel triggered?
  3. Are there any triggers that you think I could help you with?
  4. Do you think having a code word would be helpful, which you could say if you’re feeling triggered?

While it can be difficult to talk about triggers, and the conversation should be handled with respect and care, it’s important to learn them so you can be a better support system for them.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when approaching the conversation:

  • Keep it focused: Try not to go too deep into hard topics, bringing out unwanted emotions. Instead, learn what the trigger is and move on, reassuring your loved one along the way.
  • Talk when they’re ready: Be sure they’re open to a conversation about triggers. If this is a hard subject area for your loved one, they may need to come to you when they’re ready.
  • Be understanding: It may be hard for your loved one to discuss or admit some of the topics they’ll cover, so remain open and express your understanding ofthese issues.

Steps To Take To Support Your Recovering Loved One During The Holidays

Now that you and your loved one have discussed some of their most pressing triggers, you’re prepared to face them when they arise.

If you’re not sure where to start, you might consider a few of the tips below.

Set Realistic Goals

For many people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, it can be a real challenge to keep up with the same level of social interaction, activities, length of festivities, and other aspects of the holidays they typically participate in.

This is why it’s important that people in addiction recovery set realistic goals for the holiday that both meet their desire to be included and honor their recovery needs.

Here are a few examples of realistic goal-setting for people in recovery over the holidays:

  • I will start my day with 10 minutes of prayer, meditation, reading, etc.
  • I will attend one recovery group on the day of the holiday.
  • I will spend three hours with family and friends, and leave once that time is up to preserve my mental well-being.
  • I will ask my sober loved ones to help keep me accountable during the party, family gathering, etc.
  • I will refrain from drinking alcohol by bringing my own beverage.
  • If anyone around me uses drugs or alcohol, I will make my exit.
  • I will take care of my physical health by including at least one fruit and one vegetable in my holiday meal.
  • I will talk to a sober friend or recovery mentor one hour before and after the holiday gathering.

Setting generalized, unrealistic goals might include “staying sober” or “being healthier.” While these are good goals, they’re not specific and thus may be hard to accomplish.

By setting more targeted goals with action steps, you can help your loved one to stay sober and improve their physical and mental health over the holidays with specific ways to do that.

Create Boundaries

Keeping in mind triggers involving family, socializing, substances, and stress, boundaries are essential when planning a successful, sober holiday for your loved one.

The boundaries your loved one in recovery creates should be specified to the triggers they face. Each boundary should come with a consequence in the event that it’s crossed.

For example, if your loved one sets a boundary of no alcohol at the dinner table on Christmas, they should be prepared to leave if someone brings alcohol.

Here are a few examples of helpful boundaries with corresponding consequences for the holidays:

  • boundary: No drinking or using drugs when I’m present.
  • consequence: If someone breaks this boundary, I will leave. If the boundary is consistently broken, I will no longer attend gatherings.
  • boundary: No discussion of past conflicts or trauma.
  • consequence: If the topic is brought up, I will leave the conversation. If the boundary is consistently broken, I will no longer have conversations with these people.
  • boundary: No discussion of my substance use.
  • consequence: If a friend or family member pushes me on the topic of addiction or my recovery when I’m not comfortable discussing it, I will leave the situation.

Remind your loved one that it’s OK if not everyone agrees with these boundaries. Not everyone in the room has to understand the boundary, but they should respect it.

Help them proactively problem-solve a few issues they think might come up over the holidays and create boundaries around those issues.

Practice Stress-Reduction

There are several practices that can help your loved one lower their overall stress while giving them tools to use in the moment of a stressful or triggering experience.

Exercise is great for increasing “feel good” endorphins and improving mood. It can even calm our fight-or-flight response, as we mimic a stressful situation for our body with exercise but then work through it.

Mindfulness practices like breathwork are also great for reducing stress. Many offer tools that can be used in any situation without others knowing.

As your loved one gains healthy tools for managing difficult situations and negative feelings, their confidence will grow, which can also reduce the effects of triggers.

Find A Wingwoman Or Wingman

With all the social activities and get-togethers during the holiday season, there are more opportunities for triggers to arise.

Having help from someone who understands their addiction and the recovery process can reassure your loved one that they are supported and don’t have to go it alone.

This can go a long way in reducing negative emotions and conflicts with others, two big drivers of relapse.

This trusted family member or close friend can show support by doing the following:

  • understanding your loved one’s triggers
  • steering conversations away from triggers
  • checking in to make sure that things are going smoothly
  • providing positive feedback (such as through smiles, a gentle touch on the shoulder, or a hug if appropriate)
  • offering moments to get away for a bit

Make An Exit Plan

Help your loved one in recovery to create an exit plan if and when a triggering experience happens over the holiday.

If hard topics come up at the table during Thanksgiving dinner or someone brings out a bottle of wine, your loved one may not be prepared to handle these situations just yet.

Once a situation becomes a threat to their sobriety, it’s usually best to leave. Consider a few scenarios with your loved one and determine the right time to leave so they’re prepared for it.

You can also suggest that they go straight to a trusted friend’s home, a recovery meeting, or call a peer mentor after exiting the gathering. This will ensure they’re pursuing healthy alternatives.

What If A Trigger Turns Into A Relapse?

A person with a substance use disorder who never relapses is rare. It can be helpful to see relapse as normal, not as a failure on your loved one’s or any care provider’s part.

Feel grateful if your loved one confides in you about their relapse and express your gratitude to them for telling you. Let them know that you are there for them.

One of the best things you can do during a relapse is to encourage your loved one to continue with their treatment program because although relapse is normal, it’s also serious.

If they have completed their program, help them make an appointment with their care team as soon as possible. If they attend group meetings, help them find one.

Relapse can be an opportunity for your loved one and their therapists and other care providers to reassess needs, refocus treatment, and build a better relapse-prevention plan.

Resources For Those Recovering From Addiction And Their Loved Ones

Both you and your loved one in recovery need additional support during the holidays. It’s important to express emotional needs and find healthy outlets for mental wellness.

The resources below can help you and your loved one to do this.

Resources for loved ones of people in addiction recovery over the holidays:

Resources for people in addiction recovery over the holidays:

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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on October 18, 2022

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