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Veterans’ Path to Recovery: Managing Triggers and Preventing Relapse

Last Updated: March 1, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

To recover from addiction, one must learn to navigate through triggers to avoid relapse. After embarking on a recovery journey, everyone is susceptible to triggers, with veterans facing special challenges related to their service period. However, effective methods exist to manage these specific triggers for veterans, ensuring they remain focused on their recovery from addiction. 

Veterans and Their Struggle with Addiction

For veterans, managing addiction can be uniquely challenging due to the experiences and stressors associated with military service. Research suggests that approximately 11% of veterans seeking care at the VA grapple with substance use disorders. However, the actual prevalence may be higher, considering not all veterans with addiction seek treatment.

Among male veterans, the prevalence of alcohol use disorder stands at 10.5%, while drug use disorder affects 4.8%. In female veterans, these rates are slightly lower, with 4.8% experiencing alcohol use disorder and 2.4% facing drug use disorder.

The demands of military life, including combat exposure and deployment stress, can contribute to the development of addiction among veterans. Substance use may serve as a coping mechanism for managing physical and emotional challenges encountered during service.

Unique Triggers: PTSD and Mental Health

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a prevalent trigger for addiction among veterans, with around one-third of those seeking addiction treatment also diagnosed with PTSD.

PTSD symptoms, such as intrusive memories and sleep disturbances, can lead to substance use as a means of temporary relief from emotional distress. However, reliance on substances often exacerbates mental health issues over time, worsening conditions like depression.

Pain-Related Triggers: Service-Related Injuries

Service-related injuries, frequently treated with opioid pain medications, pose another significant trigger for addiction among veterans. Research indicates that opioids are commonly prescribed to veterans for managing chronic pain, especially those with co-occurring mental health conditions.

Veterans coping with injuries and chronic pain may turn to substances to alleviate physical discomfort. However, the risk of addiction is heightened, particularly for those concurrently diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health conditions.

Common Triggers: Shared Struggles

In addition to unique triggers, veterans also face common relapse triggers such as stress, social isolation, and drug cravings. However, there are effective strategies to navigate these challenges and maintain sobriety.

Strategies for Coping with Veteran-Specific Triggers

Addressing PTSD-related triggers requires tailored approaches, including:

  • Seeking support from trusted friends and family members
  • Engaging in enjoyable hobbies and activities to boost mood
  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga
  • Spending time outdoors and participating in gentle exercises for physical and mental well-being

Navigating Pain-Related Triggers

Veterans experiencing pain-related triggers can explore alternative pain management strategies, including:

  • Massage therapy to alleviate physical discomfort
  • Mindfulness practices to cultivate awareness and reduce stress
  • Physical and occupational therapy to improve mobility and function
  • Exercise programs like Tai Chi and yoga to promote overall wellness and pain relief

Building Resilience: General Relapse Prevention

In addition to veteran-specific strategies, general relapse prevention techniques play a crucial role in maintaining sobriety:

  • Participating in support groups like AA or NA to connect with peers and share experiences
  • Prioritizing self-care through healthy lifestyle habits, including proper nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep
  • Avoiding triggers associated with addiction, such as places or situations that elicit cravings
  • Practicing stress management techniques to cope with life’s challenges without resorting to substances

Tools for Managing Triggers

Several resources cater specifically to veterans navigating addiction and mental health challenges, including:

Supplements, Not Substitutes

While these tools can be valuable additions to a recovery toolkit, they are not substitutes for professional treatment. Engaging in a comprehensive treatment program tailored to veterans’ unique needs is essential for long-term recovery.

Explore Veteran-Centric Treatment

Veterans seeking addiction treatment can benefit from specialized programs like the FORTITUDE program offered by The Recovery Village. These programs address addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders, providing personalized support for veterans and first responders. Reach out to a Veteran Advocate today to embark on your journey to recovery.


Teeters, Jenni, et al. “Substance use disorders in military veterans: prevalence and treatment challenges.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 2017. Accessed November 21, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans.” March 30, 2023. Accessed November 21, 2023. 

Menon, Jayakrishnan; Kandasamy, Arun. “Relapse prevention.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, February 2018. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Coping with Traumatic Stress Reactions.” March 30, 2023. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

Giannitrapani, Karleen, et al. “Veteran Experiences Seeking Non-pharmacologic Approaches for Pain.” Military Medicine, 2018. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

Melemis, Steven. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015. Accessed November 22, 2023.  

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Coping With Unwanted Thoughts: RESET for Active-duty Soldiers.” June 7, 2023. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “VA Mobile Apps.” August 25, 2022. Accessed November 22, 2023. 

National Center for PTSD. “PTSD Coach Online.” Accessed November 22, 2023. 

VetChange. “Take Control of Your Drinking.” Accessed November 22, 2023. 

National Center for PTSD. “Insomnia Coach.” June 11, 2020. Accessed February 21, 2024.