Halloween is less than a week away and there will be many Halloween parties this weekend and throughout next week. Therefore, it is important for you to understand the challenges to staying sober that you will likely experience and for you to create strategies for overcoming them. If you are newly recovered, or still recovering, and this Halloween will be your first sober celebration, then maintaining your sobriety may be especially difficult. But if you think ahead and create a plan for how you will stay sober this Halloween, you can greatly improve your chances of successfully staying sober.
Reward Cues and Triggers
Stimuli that are called “reward cues” can cause you to experience cravings for specific things, the following are examples:
- Seeing sexual images can cause you to crave sex
- Smelling the scent of cannabis can cause you to crave cannabis
- Being in a nightclub can cause you to crave alcohol or other substances
- Using one substance can cause you to crave another substance
“Rewards” are immediately gratifying stimuli such as substances, behaviors, or foods. “Reward cues” are behaviors, sensations, things in your environment, or emotions that your brain associates with specific rewards. Thus, a reward cue is a signal that can cause you to crave a specific substance, behavior, or food.
The brain of a recovered, or recovering, addict is especially sensitive to reward cues for the substance or behavior to which he or she was addicted. Exposure to such reward cues can cause a recovered, or recovering, addict to feel intense cravings. Thus, reward cues can trigger relapses which is why they are often called “triggers.”
The following are some examples of reward cues that could be relapse triggers:
- Hearing a particular song or type of music
- Smelling a particular scent
- Being in a particular social situation
- Being with a particular person or group of people
- Being in a particular physical environment
- Being in a particular mood or emotional state
Triggers can cause cravings without you being aware of them, which can make their effects very difficult to resist. This suggests that you should identify your triggers and know what they are so that you can plan to minimize your exposure to them. Nevertheless, despite your best intentions and planning, you may still be exposed to triggers unexpectedly, so you should always be vigilant, just in case. You should prepare yourself by developing strategies for how to respond when you feel you are being affected by a trigger—ideally, the best strategy is to leave the situation immediately.
Know Your Triggers and Avoid Them
Each person will have many of their own unique triggers and it can take active mindfulness over a long period of time for you to identify all of yours. However, your more common triggers, such as the following, will be easier for you to identify and avoid:
- Songs or genres of music to which, in the past, you listened while using addictive substances or engaging in addictive behaviors
- People with whom, in the past, you used addictive substances or engaged in addictive behaviors
- Physical environments in which, in the past, you used addictive substances or engaged in addictive behaviors
- Being in a situation where the addictive substances or behaviors in which you engaged in the past are easily accessible
- Being in the presence of people while they are using addictive substances or engaging in addictive behaviors
- Feeling extreme stress or anxiety
Based on the list above, make your own list of the music, people, places, and situations that you expect will be triggers for you and that would put you in danger of relapsing. When you are making Halloween plans, make a firm commitment to avoid all these triggers. Also, make a firm commitment to immediately leave any situation in which you feel you are being affected by any of your triggers.
Cross-Domain Effects of Reward Cues
Research suggests that, in recovering addicts, a reward cue for the particular substance or behavior to which they were addicted can cause cravings for other rewarding substances or behaviors to which they were not previously addicted (Hoebel et al., 2009; Li, 2008; Van den Bergh et al., 2008) . This means that being exposed to your triggers may increase your motivation to overindulge in other addictive substances or behaviors, even though those substances or behaviors may not have been problems for you in the past. Hence, while you should definitely take precautions to ensure that you don’t have access to the substances and behaviors to which you were previously addicted, you should be mindful of the additional possibility that triggers may cause you to crave other addictive substances or behaviors.
Additional Strategies for Staying Sober
The simplest and most effective strategy for staying sober this Halloween is not going out. Consider staying at home and inviting over a few sober friends. If that is not possible and you must go out, at least take the following precautions:
- Make a firm commitment to go home by an appropriate hour—“appropriate” in this case is subjective, so choose a time that you believe minimizes the chances that you will relapse.
- Make sure you can go home by yourself and are not dependent on anyone else to go home.
- Fill your schedule for the following day with important and meaningful activities so that you will feel obligated to stay sober and get a good night’s rest.
- Have at least one sober friend with you and make an agreement to look out for each other.
Another, More Proactive Option
One other option is that, instead of going out and celebrating in the conventional way, you could celebrate your sobriety by attending a support meeting. You can spend your time with other people who are in the same situation as yourself, who are responsibly avoiding triggering situations and instead are seeking out a safe and supportive environment. EHN Canada offers a number of support groups for people who have recovered, or are recovering, from addiction and one of them may be right for you.
If you would like to learn more about our support groups, or have any other questions regarding addiction, relapse triggers, sobriety planning, or one of our treatment programs, please call us. Our phone lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—so you can call us anytime at 1-800-683-0111.
Hoebel, B. G., Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., & Rada, P. (2009). Natural addiction: A behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 3, 33-41.
Li, X. (2008). The effects of appetitive stimuli on out-of-domain consumption impatience. The Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 649–656.
Van den Bergh, B., Dewitte, S., & Warlop, L. (2008). Bikinis instigate generalized impatience in intertemporal choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 85–97.