Triggers on the Radar: Managing Reminders of Addictive Behaviors


By Rick Kuplinski, Facilitator, SMART Recovery Henderson

trig·gers: Triggers are the things that lead to cravings (I want to), which can lead to urges (I need to). They may be your emotions; something you’ve done, are doing, or want to do; a time of day, week, or year: something you touch, hear, see, smell, or taste; or anything else that leads to urges. – Page 26 of The SMART Recovery Handbook

The SMART Recovery Handbook and are chockful of useful information on coping with urges, which is Point #2 of the SMART Recovery 4-Point Program. Presented here is an additional perspective on the management of triggers, using the easy-to-remember acronym RADAR.

 R is for REVERSAL. The ultimate goal of managing triggers is reaching the point when one or more of them no longer hold power over us . . . or even better: serve as pleasant reminders of the progress we have made in recovery. We’ll come back to this later.

 A is for AWARENESS. Triggers vary from person to person in type, number, and severity. Managing our unique collection starts with taking an inventory to better understand the work ahead. Pages 27 through 29 of The SMART Recovery Handbook are a big help. Here you’ll find several practical worksheets for listing our specific reminders of addictive behavior and for assessing their risk level. But we can build upon this by taking a closer look at some of our triggers to see if there is a trigger behind the trigger. For example, one might list “family gatherings” as triggering. But what is it about a specific family gathering? Is it emotional associations with the occasion or the place? Is it problematic relationships with some of the people? Is it a fear of missing out on something? Analyzing multiple aspects of the situation might arm us with additional insight into how to manage it. Especially helpful to this process are the SMART tools of DIBs and ABC, which are explained in Chapter 5 of the SMART Recovery Handbook. Both can help us identify and dispute beliefs associated with triggers that may be more powerful than the trigger itself. 

D is for DISARMAMENT. Sometimes we leave triggers lying around like ticking time bombs. Not deleting drug dealer contacts from phones. Not unsubscribing from the mailing list of the local casino. Delaying decisions about what to do about things like problematic food in the kitchen or the mini bar in the corner. (I repurposed mine.) So, what needs to be defused and safely removed from your recovery path? One person at a recent SMART meeting suddenly remembered that she had a box of drug paraphernalia in a storage unit while she was between living situations. She decided then, while her resolve was strong, to take a supportive friend with her on a search-and-destroy mission. Better this than the risk of stumbling upon it during a future move when she might be more vulnerable to temptation.

 A is for AVOIDANCE. Triggers that can’t be disarmed can likely be avoided, at least in the short term. Take a different route than the one that goes by where we bought our special something-something. Maybe it is not a good idea to go hang out with those people. That TV show everyone is talking about . . . are we really ready to watch all those scenes depicting the characters’ addictions? Pay attention to the radar screen. Look for the triggers heading your way. Be prepared to take evasive action. 

R is for REASSOCIATION. There are likely to be triggers that we prefer not to avoid forever. Sometimes we find things on our trigger lists that, on their own, are not problematic—but got all mushed together with addictive behavior. Sometimes some of these things, on their own, even have aspects to them that are good for our physical and emotional health. Take, for example, the person who loves to prepare special dinners for family or friends. At one time, this was a way the person used culinary skill to bring people together and to make a positive expression of love and generosity. But eventually, drinking while preparing food became the main course. So, what to do? Stay out of the kitchen? Not necessary if this person embarks on a mission to establish effective new beliefs about being a sober chef and to carefully, dinner by dinner, re-discover the joy of cooking before it was hijacked by addiction. 

Which brings us back to REVERSAL. What is it like when things that were once triggering no longer hold their power or even become pleasant reminders of the progress of our recovery? Allow me to illustrate with a story about a recent stroll down the liquor aisle of my local grocery store. This is me, in my head:

 "Well, it looks like the shortest way to the chicken wings is right through the booze. Remember in early recovery when you told yourself, ‘Hot lava!’ Don’t even look in this direction!’ Remember that place you were in emotionally that once made this too risky. But look at you now. You got this. Seeing that bottle of my favorite brand only reminds me of how great it is to just keep walking without even a thought of bringing all those negative costs back into my life. I am so glad I chose recovery. I worked hard to get here, and every day I get stronger and more committed to life beyond addiction. This feels like a victory lap. This . . . is freedom!”

 SMART Recovery is a science- and evidence-based program that provides educational and peer support to those who want to abstain and gain independence from all addictive behaviors, whether or not they involve alcohol or drugs. The program emphasizes building motivation and self-empowerment skills, employing strategies to control urges, managing thoughts at the root of addictive behaviors and living a healthy, balanced life. Go to the “Meetings” tab at to find an in-person or online meeting to attend.

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