If you or a loved one has ever struggled with alcohol, you may be familiar with the idea of “drinking triggers.” They’re pretty much what they sound like—anything that may give you an urge to drink. Certain environments, situations, emotional experiences, and even your overall health can play a role.
Learning how to deal with triggers and learn new coping skills in recovery can be challenging—but it’s very much possible. The better you understand your drinking triggers, and the strategies that work for you, the better you’ll be able to manage them when they come up.
Below are a few common types of triggers, and some strategies that may help you cope. Remember: Each person is unique, and it’s common to try a few different techniques before finding the best ones for you. If you’re struggling to manage the drinking triggers in your life, support is always available.
Coping With Family and Friends Who Drink
One of the biggest challenges for many in recovery is being around friends and family members who still consume alcohol. Some people may feel threatened, mock you, or even get angry when you tell them you’re cutting back. They may even feel it’s a criticism of them continuing to drink.
Whether it’s not wanting to bring attention to yourself, or the actual physical presence of alcohol, being around family and friends who still drink can be challenging. Here are some tips for dealing with triggers in these situations:
1. Avoid situations where family and friends often drink—at least for a while
As you’re learning to cut back, or stop drinking altogether, it may be helpful to simply avoid settings that involve alcohol. If family or friends tend to drink in the evening, for example, try to see them earlier in the day, or talk over the phone instead of dropping by after dinner.
2. Let people know you’re trying to quit or drink less, if it feels safe to do so
If friends or family aren’t likely to give you a hard time, give them a heads up that you’re trying to cut back. You don’t necessarily have to go into a long explanation with everyone if you don’t feel like it. A simple, “I’m trying to watch my health and I’m cutting back on drinking” will do.
3. Find a sober friend or support system
If you have a friend who has also cut back, or simply isn’t that into drinking, try reaching out to them. Having a sober friend to talk to can be helpful—even if you don’t talk about alcohol. The more social opportunities you have that don’t involve drinking, the easier it will be to avoid or manage the ones that do.
Settings and Rituals that Revolve Around Alcohol
Oftentimes, people have rituals connected to drinking. These might include stopping by a bar, picking up alcohol after work, or going to a particular friend’s house.
When you cut back or quit, these rituals may continue to have a powerful pull on you, making it difficult to not pick up a drink. Here are some ways you might deal with this:
- Replace these old rituals with new activities that don’t revolve around alcohol.
- Avoid certain potential triggers for a while—such as not driving by your favorite bar or liquor store.
- Leave your money at home if possible, so you don’t have the ability to spontaneously buy alcohol after work.
- Find other beverages to keep in your hand at events, or even at home alone.
Once you’ve been sober (or practicing moderation) for a certain amount of time, you may be able to safely add some of your older activities and rituals back into your schedule. For example, you might eventually be able to socialize with friends in a bar without drinking.
But over time, you may also be surprised to find these activities aren’t as fun as you once thought. They may have been more about the alcohol than the setting or the company.
How To Deal With Emotional Triggers
Difficult emotions are among the most challenging triggers to deal with. Many people who struggle with alcohol come to rely on it to cope with difficult feelings, or even past trauma. A stressful day at work, a reminder of a bad event, or a persistent feeling of anxiety can all be major drinking triggers.
It’s understandable that someone would want to avoid these reminders and emotions. However, feelings that continually resurface generally need to be resolved rather than pushed away. Journaling, talking to others, and talking time to unpack your feelings about yourself can all make a difference.
Here are some other ways you can process and cope with repetitive negative thoughts and feelings:
A mindfulness practice can help you better understand yourself, your thinking patterns, and how you may be avoiding unpleasant feelings. This process happens naturally, as your brain helps you heal.
There are a variety of ways to develop a mindfulness practice. It may be as simple as taking a thoughtful walk each day, and noticing the scenery around you.
Others practice mindfulness a bit more formally—through a meditation group, yoga class, tai chi, or even a smart app. All of these are shown to decrease stress and improve health, and can help you cut back on drinking.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers many helpful ways to manage and resolve emotions. By recognizing your beliefs and patterns of thinking, you can begin to heal them.
Having more time without alcohol will also help you begin to think more clearly. You may start to see where your thoughts may not have been fair to yourself or others. Challenging negative beliefs about yourself can lead to less need for alcohol to curb emotions.
HALT Your Drinking
Drinking triggers can also relate to more physical problems, or to your overall state in the moment. This can overlap with or worsen environmental and emotional triggers. The “HALT” acronym is a popular tool in recovery for recognizing and dealing with this. It stands for:
It can help to check in with yourself when you are experiencing cravings, or dealing with a drinking trigger. If any of the above is currently true, prioritize that basic need first. Taking good care of your state overall, including eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep, can help curb the need to drink.
Sometimes, stress or other mental health issues can get in the way of meeting these needs. You might talk to your doctor about getting extra help if you’re struggling with anxiety, insomnia, depression, or any other issues that make it harder to look after your health.
If you’re struggling particularly with loneliness, here are some other things that may help:
- Explore new hobbies, such as sports, video games, puzzles, movies, books, art, and more. Find one that provides a good distraction and gives you an immersive experience.
- Reach out to old or new friends. Many adults find it difficult to make new connections, and you may be surprised how many others are facing the same challenge. Many networks such as Meetup.com connect people with others who share similar interests. Look for ones that aren’t set in restaurants and bars—which may involve alcohol.
- Connect with people online. Do you have a favorite sports team, artistic interest, or drama series? It’s likely there’s a Facebook group or other social network that brings like-minded people together. Explore these until you find one that’s a good match.
- Try a new exercise routine. Even if you haven’t exercised in years, there is likely some activity you can get into. Try swimming, a sports activity, walking while you listen to podcasts, or a virtual exercise program. Exercise can improve your overall mood and even give you some of the same chemical boosts you get from alcohol. You may also find you share a common interest with other athletes.
Read more: Alternatives To Drinking Alcohol
Healing for Good
All of these tools can give you a leg up on managing your drinking, but it’s perfectly normal to struggle to stick with them long-term. Establishing new habits and overcoming triggers is very much possible, but it can be challenging.
For this reason, it can help to have support. Fortunately, there are newer, more flexible ways to establish sobriety or moderation around alcohol.
Online programs like Ria Health offer coaching support from the palm of your hand, as well as custom treatment plans tailored to your goals and your schedule. Our team can help you build new coping skills, learn to manage your triggers, and even prescribe anti-craving medication to make drinking urges less severe.
Learn more about how we can help you live a freer and healthier life—that doesn’t depend on alcohol.
- Kamboj S K et al. Ultra-Brief Mindfulness Training Reduces Alcohol Consumption in At-Risk Drinkers: A Randomized Double-Blind Active-Controlled Experiment. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2017 Nov; 20(11): 936–947. Accessed December 28, 2020.
- McHugh R K et al. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Substance Use Disorders. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010 Sep; 33(3): 511–525. Accessed December 28, 2020.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Handling Urges to Drink. Accessed December 28, 2020.