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Identify Your Triggers And Develop An Action Plan To Stay Sober

By Brian McAlister

Addiction is a mighty foe. It is devious and cunning. It is willing to bide its time, waiting for an opening. It plays a long game and a short game.

If you are not prepared or if you underestimate the power of addiction, you may be vulnerable. Addiction is always waiting, always ready. If you don’t have an action plan, addiction is likely to hit you with a sucker-punch. In many cases, that sucker-punch comes in the form of a trigger. I know from experience.

A trigger comes in many forms. A trigger is place, a smell, a sound, a certain time of day. For me, one trigger is the city of Harrison, which is a city full of bars and where I used to hang out. Another trigger is that distinctive pop and hiss, the sound of someone opening a soda can, which immediately reminds me of beer. Yet another trigger is the smell of hot metal and oil, the smell of a motorcycle. All these triggers take me back, instantly, to my drinking and drugging days. Each of these triggers can prompt an automatic response or craving, if I’m not prepared.

To win the fight against addiction and avoid relapse, it’s important to understand how addiction works. Know your enemy.  Identify your triggers. Learn how to avoid and overcome those triggers and use that knowledge to your greatest advantage.


Human beings have the capacity to re-wire their brains, to outsmart addiction. To do so requires first an understanding of – and respect for – the power of addiction. And it requires a comprehensive strategic game plan moving forward.

You’ve heard that it takes 21 days to break a habit and 90 days to integrate a new one. Experts argue about this; many say that 21 days is not enough time for meaningful change and that new habits don’t just form simply because you repeat them often enough.

I have found that meaningful change can happen in a short period of time just by following some simple suggestions on a daily basis, but maintaining that change – remaining vigilant – is often a challenge and process that occurs over a much longer period of time. Yet, longer commitments produce enduring results. With addicts, the stakes are high. Staying sober is not a new habit like a fitness regime or a low-fat diet. Staying sober, each day, is a life-or-death decision.

I have also learned this: It’s easier to stay sober than to get sober. Remember that the next time you are tempted to pick-up the first drink or drug. Think the drink or drug through to the end with all its consequences. Don’t react to the impulse.


I was drunk and high when I drove my motorcycle over a cliff and nearly died. Yet I continued drinking and drugging for six more years. It was not something I wanted to do, it was something I had to do. I learned later that, like all addicts, I was no longer a sane man. My brain had been hijacked. I was reacting daily to the part of my brain that demanded the release provided by drugs and alcohol. The logical part of my brain art was being overridden by these primal, immediate urges.

I couldn’t defeat those urges, because I didn’t have the tools. Retraining your brain is a slow and deliberate process. Those immediate, primal urges are intensely powerful. Much can be done to reduce cravings in a short period of time, but cravings never disappear altogether. Decades late, I still have cravings for drugs and alcohol. My cravings today are infrequent and far less intense, yet each craving is dangerous. I have learned to be always vigilant. I have learned to arm myself with as many tools as possible. I never want my defenses to be down.

Be prepared in advance. Raise your consciousness. I pray. I meditate. When a craving hits, the first tool is this: Change your focus. Think positive. Think powerful thoughts:  think back to your worst moment and the consequences you suffered in active addiction. Next, change your focus. Substitute a new more empowering thought. Remind yourself how good you feel being alcohol and drug free. Think gratitude, think power. Call your sponsor. Go to a meeting. Reach for your Freedom 365 app. You want to banish the negative thoughts as quickly as possible; you want to teach your brain that the cravings aren’t welcome.


  1. Understand your brain. It’s the limbic system – the primitive brain – that demands drugs and alcohol. The primitive brain works on autopilot, fight or flight. The primitive brain is powerful – it’s what’s kept humans alive for centuries. (Who has time to think when we’re being attacked by predators?) In the brain of an active addict, the limbic system rules, and the cognitive brain is suppressed. An addict’s brain is unbalanced and must be retrained. This requires perseverance and a daily commitment.
  2. Work to retrain your brain. When a craving hits, empower yourself with a positive thought. Act swiftly and call in reinforcements. Teach your brain that its automatic response – reaching for drugs or alcohol – is no longer acceptable. Veto your limbic system.
  3. Understand your triggers. Triggers lead to relapse. Triggers are cues, messages to your brain that connect you to your addiction, the people, places and the things that consciously or unconsciously encourage you to use mind-altering substances. Most addicts are unaware of all the cues; likely it’s a complex web. Make a list of your triggers. And write down the times of day you are most vulnerable. Empower yourself with knowledge.
  4. Avoid your triggers. Keep the process manageable. Avoid people who drink and get high. Stay away from the places that challenge you. Make plans for those vulnerable times. If, for example, your daily routine included drugs or alcohol as soon as your workday ended, then find a new habit, something positive and life-affirming, to replace it. Walk around the block. Listen to a podcast. Find someone who already has been able to stay clean and sober and ask how they did it. Do what they did and you’ll get the results they got.
  5. Expect to be taken off guard, and plan for it. It’s impossible to avoid all triggers, and it’s also impossible to avoid challenges to your sobriety. Expect cravings. Expect negativity. Expect that others will not understand what you are going through. Make an action plan, have your responses ready. Write them down. Most important, don’t allow the negativity of others to thwart your efforts. This is your battle to win.
  6. Build on your success. Success leads to success. One good day leads to another. Each challenge provides you with a new tool, a new strategy, for tomorrow’s challenge.

Make no mistake, retraining your brain is not an easy process. It takes time, and you’ll have difficult days. But it does work. And trust me, it’s not about avoidance forever. Today I am a successful entrepreneur and best-selling author. My life is defined by who I am and what I do, not what I don’t do.

Brian McAlister’s sober date is August 2, 1990. He is now the President and CEO of the Full Recovery Wellness Center and Freedom 365 Virtual Recovery System™. He is also the best-selling author of Full Recovery, The Recovering Person’s Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Power. Brian recently created Freedom 365 to put a full year of 24/7, secure, and private addiction recovery support in the palm of your hand, anywhere, and on any device. His mission is to help others have access to the life-changing and life-saving tools of recovery that he uses every day – even after 28 years in sobriety. Find out more here.

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