The Science of Environmental Triggers of Relapse

Last Updated: Sep 20th 2019

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

While South Florida rehab centers that treat people for substance use disorders understand that environment plays a significant role in people who’ve undergone substance abuse treatment and relapse prevention, much of the public still holds onto the belief that a person relapses because either they’re morally incapable of making the ‘right’ decision or they simply lack enough willpower to overcome their habit. The more competent and holistic south Florida rehab centers work with patients over the long term to handle the stressors of environment that lead to relapse because they have an understanding of this phenomenon, but a lot of the scientific research as to the ‘why’ this occurs is still under study.

A recent study by the University of Guelph has uncovered a little more of the mystery that connects behavior triggers to the environment of a person recovering from substance use disorder. The study’s co-author, Professor Francesco Leri, says that memory processing is stimulated from certain drugs like cocaine, associating in the brain a location and general environment to use. Thus, if an addict frequently used their drug in their home, say, at sundown, then someone recovering from cocaine use disorder will face extra challenges of resisting cravings, despite being chemically free of the drug, when the sun goes down and they are in their home.

Professor Leri says, “Stimuli in our environment such as buildings, objects and places are fairly innocuous. When they’re associated with drugs of abuse, they can become modifiers of memory function.”

Study co-author Boyer Winters, also a psychology professor, adds, “That learning’s going to be stamped in better and probably be stronger and more persistent.”

The study performed involved rats in two groups. Initially, they were all drug free and then environmentally stimulated with lights and location. Then the groups were given cocaine, one group away from that location and one group in that location. They were then allowed to dispense drugs freely, but the stimulation was returned to both groups. The group that had received the drugs within the simulated environment used drugs at a higher rate and almost exclusively when the environment was stimulated, despite both groups being exposed to the stimuli.

“Those cues acquire powerful cognitive effects,” Winters added. “They could be used to enhance learning of the recovery process.”

As more studies discover just how addiction works, much of the work to be done with them involve reversing the ‘intuitive’ understanding of the public that has been dispersed regularly to the public through War On Drugs-related propaganda, which places high emphasis on drug use tied to morality, due to the illegality of drug use itself. However, the actual nature of addiction is not only completely disconnected from morals, but is far more complicated than ‘him good’ vs. ‘him bad’. Studies like this one are ongoing, with the ultimate hope that substance use disorder can be treated reliably for everyone much like a doctor can treat a physical wound with stitches.

Substance use disorder is a serious illness that requires professional treatment. If you or someone you care about might be suffering from an addiction, First Step Behavioral Health can help. Call (866) 971-5531 today to learn more about treatment options available to you or a loved one.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Brittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is the Assistant Clinical Director at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.