Alcohol Triggers – What they are and how to deal with them
As I write the weather has taken a turn for the warm and sunny, both here in Spain and in the UK, we’ve also had the May Day bank holiday in the UK and we had another one at Easter Weekend not so long ago. Long weekends and glorious weather, while a welcome change from the cold and wet, have led to a whole set of other issues for us non drinkers – the popping up of triggers. Why? Because the weather was good and many of us associate a long holiday weekend with beer gardens, a chance to chill, soak up the sun, be social, enjoy an extra day off work, oh, and drink. For many of us these weekends brought a huge alcohol trigger and instead of being able to relax and do something fun, we were stressed, anxious, scared and unbelievably, longing for a return to work and a bit of normality.
The thing is that alcohol triggers can appear whatever stage you are at in your sober journey and can cause us a lot of discomfort and can even lead to a return to drinking if we are unprepared for them or don’t know how to deal with them effectively.
When I first quit drinking, there were many, many triggers to deal with. Sometimes they were obvious things like a Friday afternoon signaling the start of the weekend but at other times I was triggered by something totally out of the blue like talking to a friend or reading something on social media.
What are alcohol triggers?
Triggers are situations, people, places, emotions or events that trigger an urge in us, a desire or a need to drink. They are tricky because they can come out of nowhere and can even be things like a song, a scent, a meal or something someone says. When we are going through early sobriety they also seem to be everywhere!
This can be scary at first and we often retreat into ourselves to escape these triggers – I certainly did, I think I spent the first few weeks on the sofa in my PJs every evening with a cup of tea and cake. The thing is though, we don’t get sober to just sit on the sofa and at some point must return to the real world. This means that we need to learn how to deal with these triggers of ours (and they are different for everybody) so that they become less scary and eventually will not cause us any upset or stress. I am at the stage now where alcohol is just irrelevant in my life, for me it doesn’t exist and I am so thankful to be able to enjoy a full sober life without worrying or thinking about alcohol anymore.
However, in order to get to the stage where triggers no longer bother us when they happen, it is important to put in the time and effort which means looking within and learning about ourselves.
Whether or not we were physically and/or psychologically dependent on alcohol, we all had emotions or were in situations where we drank and these are our triggers. They can cause us to feel nostalgic, such as the feeling of relaxing in a pub garden with a cold beer or they can cause a full on craving like when we’re extremely stressed and the only remedy we used to turn to was alcohol.
How do we get past our triggers?
Alcohol triggers are different for us all but the key is to know then, understand them, anticipate them and have a set of tools and strategies in place to help us overcome them.
It is not enough just to remove alcohol and be hangover free, we need to do some inner work and work out why we drank in the first place, what was it we were really craving and when did these cravings appear – what were our alcohol triggers and when did they appear?
Common Alcohol Triggers
I used to self medicate all the time for stress whether it was after a rough day with the kids, if things were tough financially, there was more Spanish bureaucracy to deal with, or the thought of an upcoming stressful day at work – I just wanted that feeling to go away. I have since learned new ways to cope with stress and actually I get less stressed now than when I did when I was drinking! Once I learned nicer, more healthy ways to de-stress such as running, walking, journaling or meditation it got easier to manage.
We all need a little stress in our lives and the key to beating stress is also to know why you are feeling that way. Are you worried about something, can you do anything about it? Can you speak to someone, ask for help? I also find that writing out why I am feeling stressed and how it affects me physically really helps. I also practice the RAIN technique if I am having trouble coping.
A lot of my drinking was done because I was bored but let me tell you that there is nothing more boring than sitting on the sofa watching rubbish and wasting away the hours. The extra time we find ourselves with when we remove alcohol is lovely but it can be scary. However, there are many ways to beat boredom and it doesn’t have to mean that you pack out your schedule either. What really helped me was to make a list of things I enjoyed doing – anything from reading a book, browsing the shops, organising my clothes or going for a walk. If you find yourself bored or with nothing to do in an evening, get out your list and choose one thing to do. You’ll be surprised that once you get involved in the activity how quick the time passes.
“I deserve a treat!” was my biggest excuse for having a drink and I know that so many of us use alcohol as a reward for getting through a tough day, accomplishing a task, finishing a project, the end of the working week or just because, well we deserve it. Since quitting drinking I have learned that there are so many wonderful ways to treat myself with the added bonus of enjoying the treat properly and remembering it! I feel that the reward trigger can also be anticipated and planned for in advance. If you know that you are going to have a tough week at work, then take the time to plan a proper treat for Friday evening. A nice meal, a new book, a bath and an early night – whatever takes your fancy. The great thing about getting past the reward trigger is that the more you associate not drinking alcohol with a reward or a treat, the more your brain adapts to this and eventually you will naturally be drawn to other healthier more satisfying activities to reward yourself with.
Social situations are huge alcohol triggers and they can come in the form of anything from a night in with friends, an evening down the pub, a BBQ, a holiday, the Bank Holiday weekend or big occasions such as Christmas or your birthday. Social situations involve people and people can also be alcohol triggers, then there is the social pressure to drink and the worry of what people will say or think of us.
First of all, decide if you really want to go, if you do then plan as much as you can from your drinks to your escape route. If you would rather do something else then that’s fine too just make sure that you don’t stay at home and mope – enjoy the JOMO and yes, treat yourself, do something nice and practice lots of self care.
“Every day may not be good but there’s something good in every day” – Alice Morse Earl
Whether happy or sad, good or bad, emotions are intertwined with drinking. We drank to celebrate, we drank to commiserate, we drank because we were sad, happy or angry, we drank to enhance our feelings and we drank when we didn’t want to feel anything at all. Learning how to deal with our emotions, to accept them to understand that they are natural and we are meant to feel them is all part of the process. The more we can sit with them and learn to feel again then the more we really get to enjoy the good emotions and realize that the bad ones are not the end of the world.
As we saw at the start of this post, the weather can have a habit of causing alcohol triggers simply because we associate drinking with certain seasons or occasions when the weather plays an important part in our behaviour. It could be the start of summer with long weekends and barbecues or it could be a bitter winter sitting in front of the fire drinking. Just like our reward triggers, alcohol triggers caused by what’s going on outside can be planned for and we can practice techniques and find other nicer things to do so that mother nature no longer gives us cause for worry and dread but instead a feeling of pleasure and anticipation about what we can do when the sun is shining. What wonderful activities can you think of to do this summer?
Not looking after ourselves (HALT)
The most effective way we can overcome alcohol triggers is to look after ourselves properly. There is a wonderful acronym HALT which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired that we can use to constantly check in with ourselves and make sure our emotional and physical needs are being met so that we don’t get tempted.
Often a craving for alcohol is triggered because we’re hungry so making sure we eat properly is fundamental in maintaining balance and energy levels.
Anger is a strong emotion and I don’t know about you but when I was pissed off, annoyed or downright furious I would reach for a drink to make it go away. Sadly though if we drink when we’re angry, alcohol seems to fuel our anger and we feel worse instead of better. Use the RAIN technique to work through your anger, go for a run and scream and shout, rip up paper, journal or find a healthy release for all that pent up tension.
I read once that addiction feeds on isolation and that is so true. I hear lots of people saying that they went back to day one again because they were feeling lonely. The key here is to reach out as soon as you can. Thankfully there is lots of sober support out there so make the effort to connect and ask for help. Even just calling a friend or relative to talk about what’s going on will have a huge positive effect.
Tiredness and lack of sleep makes us feel rotten whether we are quitting drinking or not and as I often see with my kids, especially when they were younger, a quick nap or an early night puts them right. I know sleep can seem elusive in early sobriety but your pattern will soon settle down and leave you feeling restored and energized. The key is to recognise when you are feeling tired and rest, even sitting down with a cup of tea or doing a 20 minute relaxation meditation can make you feel a hundred times better.
I have outlined the most common alcohol triggers but as you know everyone is different and we can be triggered by a variety of things. Take some time to think about your own situation and work out your own alcohol triggers so that you can come up with your own strategies to help you. This work is an important part of our recovery and in the Sober Bliss Program we dedicate a whole lesson to this so if you’re struggling then do join us.