What Triggers a Relapse? “Cues” Give Clues

3-dimensional rendering of brain

©Shutterstock/Andrus Ciprian

Drug use can change the brain in lasting ways. These changes can make it difficult for someone who has a problem with drugs to stop using them. That’s why it’s very important to get medical help when you want to quit.

But sometimes, even with proper treatment, people who quit using drugs can experience a relapse. That means they go back to using drugs.

Risky reminders
Relapses are common. There are many reasons for that, and scientists call these reasons “triggers.” Triggers can include things like:

  • Being in withdrawal from drug use.
  • Experiencing stressful life events.
  • Seeing people, places, or things that remind a person of drugs, such as returning to a place connected to past drug use or seeing a stranger sell drugs.

Scientists call these reminders “cues.” Another phrase they use is “attentional bias.” That’s when your brain pays more attention to some information in your environment than it does to other information. For example, people may focus on something that reminds them of drug use.

Finding clues in cues
With some drugs, a relapse can be especially dangerous, and can even lead to overdose or death. So, scientists and medical professionals want to help people avoid relapses as much as they can.

Scientists are studying how the brain processes information about drug cues and how that information can trigger relapse. They’re also learning which areas of the brain are involved in attentional bias.

By learning more about how drug cues work, scientists may gain insights into how to prevent relapses and help people stay in recovery.

Learn more: Watch a video about why drugs are so hard to quit.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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