This Cue Could be Triggering a Relapse into Substance Abuse

June 2, 2015

There are plenty of reasons a person may experience a drug relapse. It could be stress related or the result of exposure to the substance again. However, there could be another cause: people.

Common desires

Researchers from Wiley Blackwell found that those recovering from addiction may desire a substance after experiencing person-related cues. That means a person in recovery may feel the urge to begin using again simply by hanging out with an old friend with whom they once abused drugs. The same goes for hearing a song that reminds them of someone associated with drug abuse. The study authors also discovered that these personal reminders may have a stronger effect on a person’s willpower than seeing drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, bottles or syringes.

The researchers arrived at these conclusions after interviewing 132 participants who were in outpatient recovery for alcohol, cannabis, tobacco or opiate addiction. People were asked four times a day about their drug use and their urge to use again. They also were questioned on how often they were reminded of their former substance abuse, including being exposed to people that were associated with their addiction.

Certain triggers can influence willpower and cause a person to return to substance abuse.

The study authors believe their findings gave them a clearer understanding of the mechanism behind a relapse. Hopefully, the results can help develop new methods of treatment that are more effective than current programs. They encourage physicians and clinicians in addiction treatment programs to try and delve into the causes behind people’s cravings. The researchers plan to continue studying this area to determine what treatment methods work best for personal cues and what reminders are the most powerful in encouraging people to relapse.

For years, addiction research has proven that certain triggers can influence willpower and cause a person to return to substance abuse. Normally, a cue, regardless of what type, will bring back specific thoughts, feelings and memories associated with their time abusing substances. Often these reminders are overwhelming to a person, making them crave alcohol or drugs more strongly than they have in a while.

Undoing associations

In psychology, much of people’s behavior is learned. Addiction-related behaviors, such as drug seeking, are learned. When a person enters an addiction treatment center, they are taught how to forget these learned behaviors. However, cues can bring them back instantaneously, causing a person to want to search for drugs as if they were still regularly abusing them. As a result, most people will succumb to these feelings and desires and relapse.

Some people may think it is a good idea to stay away from anything with potential for triggering a relapse. However, like any learned behavior, it needs to be unlearned. It might be possible to allow exposure to these cues in a controlled learning process. The process would include being aware of vulnerabilities and having strategies in place to be sure you can interrupt the connection before the reward – that is, the drug. So there is risk, and awareness becomes key. It is unwise to approach these triggers without knowing the risks and putting yourself on high alert. The strategy should include a pretty dependable “go-to” safety – for example: run, don’t walk, to the nearest 12-Step meeting. After a while, successful self-intervention (seeking the support of others in recovery or a therapist can certainly be part of “self-intervention”) will help weaken the associations that connect person-related cues with substance abuse. Through a gradual disassociation, recovery can be strengthened and the risk for relapse lowered.

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