St. Patrick’s Day is technically a day to observe the death of the patron saint of Ireland, but Americans celebrate by wearing green, eating corned beef and cabbage, and drinking beer and Irish whiskey. And we drink a lot on St. Patrick’s Day. If you are newly sober or are struggling with your recovery, that can be a source of stress. Recognizing triggers and developing coping skills can help you maintain recovery on a day where drinking is so prevalent.
Triggers are environmental or emotional conditions that increase your vulnerability to use substances. For St. Patrick’s Day the most common substance is probably alcohol. There are two types of triggers: those that put you in situations where you are tempted to drink (environmental), and those that put you in a state of mind where you want to drink (emotional).
Environmental triggers are people, places, and things that make you want to drink. “It’s probably the most logical part of the recovery process,” says Rich Jones, Youturn Health Chief Clinical Officer, in the Relapse Prevention course. “If I am around folks who are using, if I am around places where drugs or alcohol are being used, I’m associating with those old habits. It’s so much easier for me to pick up and use myself. The temptation is too great.”
For example, say your friends are going to a bar on St. Patrick’s Day to have a drink, and they ask you to attend. You’re newly in recovery but think you’re ok just to hang out and not drink. Initially you’re fine not drinking, but as the night wears on, you start to feel a tension. Should I have just one drink? What would it hurt if I did? Do I really even have an issue with alcohol?
These thoughts and the temptation to drink are triggered by being in a bar and by being around people who are drinking. And many times, people use again just to break that tension that the trigger has caused. “You’ll hear people say they wound up picking up the substance to relieve the internal tension even more than the temptation itself,” says Jones.
Emotional triggers are emotions – good or bad – that make you want to drink. As Jones explains, “when we’re in active use, we will use the substance to escape negative feelings or use the substance to enhance positive feelings. Our emotions are also connected to using.” For example, if you have a bad day, you drink to escape it. Or if you get a promotion, you drink to celebrate it.
Even when you’re in recovery, your emotions are still tied to using. If you’re sad, you’ll think about your drug of choice. “Understand that it happens automatically,” Jones explains. “That isn’t you sitting down and thinking it through. That’s your brain’s automatic response to emotional pain.”
There are two ways to manage triggers: avoid them or cope with them.
Environmental triggers may be easier to avoid than emotional ones: you can avoid going to a bar, you can avoid seeing friends who encourage you to drink. Ask yourself “Can I be around people, places, and things that make me want to drink?” Jones’ advice, especially for those in early in recovery, is not to tempt yourself.
St. Patrick’s Day is a big drinking holiday, but it’s not a major holiday. You don’t have to celebrate it at all. But if you have an unavoidable obligation – say a work party – go for the beginning and leave early before things start to get out of control.
It is much harder to avoid your emotions, and that’s where coping skills come in.
Developing Preventive Coping Skills
Preventive coping skills are daily routines that help you cope with negative emotions and situations. These daily routines help recondition your thinking in a more positive and calmer direction. Meditation, mindfulness, exercise, attending recovery support groups, and seeing a therapist are all examples of preventive coping skills. By engaging with them, you are better able to cope with emotions that trigger your desire to drink. To determine what coping skills are best for you, ask yourself what you can incorporate into your day-to-day life that helps lower stress and anxiety so you are less likely to use.
Developing Immediate Coping Skills
You can’t avoid every trigger or plan for every situation, and inevitably you will find yourself being tempted to use. Let’s go back to the example above where you’re at the bar on St. Patrick’s Day starting to think it’s not a big deal if you have one drink.
An immediate coping skill for this situation is to “play the tape the whole way through.” Rather than giving in to the feel-good impulse, think out what’s going to happen if you drink. What is your partner/spouse going to say? What will your loved ones say? Are you actually going to take only one drink? What are the long-term consequences? “You have this impulsive, in-the-moment thinking that may not be good for you, and you have the ability to recognize it and replace it with a more realistic thought pattern,” says Jones.
A second option is to call someone and talk through the situation. Call your sponsor, a coach, a therapist, someone in recovery, or a support person, and talk through the situation with them. Often times getting the thoughts out of your head will make you realize the flaws in impulsive thinking. “I want to emphasize this,” says Jones, “You can white knuckle it and ‘man up’ and get through the situation without using, but we recommend you have a conversation so you can process it.”
For more support on substance misuse and developing coping skills, please visit our Substance Misuse and Stress Management and Burnout resource pages. If you’re a Youturn Health member, log in to watch our Relapse Prevention course to learn more about triggers and coping skills, or check out the Stress Management course for ideas on preventive coping skills that will lower your stress.