PTSD and Substance Abuse: Recognizing Red Flags and Green Flags | Harbor Village - Harbor Village

PTSD and Substance Abuse: Recognizing Red Flags and Green Flags

Harbor Village provides comprehensive addiction treatment in Miami.

As an experienced Addiction therapist I have found it is useful to define triggers as red flags and coping skills as green flags. I find it is easier for those in early recovery to have an understanding of what a trigger is and how to cope with it in a healthier, safer way.

Lets first discuss what is a trigger.

Relapse triggers (or substance use triggers) are mental or emotional factors that elicit unhealthy behaviors, that remind individuals of their prior drinking or using, and that may spark cravings to drink or use again. Triggers may be external — such as people, places, things, or situations closely associated with drinking or using. They may also be internal — such as negative or positive emotions and feelings

 Triggers can be people, places, things, situations and emotions. Relapse triggers are high on the list to look for on the road to recovery. In early recovery cravings from withdrawal and compulsive addictive thinking is the core of an addicts inability to stop drinking. Once the physical craving is gone the person is left with obsessive thinking.. 

It is important to understand some key points about Red and Green Flags. Here’s how they are defined in ‘Seeking Safety’ by Lisa M. Najavits

  • Red flags(triggers) are messages of distress: just like a fever tells you your body needs to rest, red flags are signs of emotional distress. With PTSD and Substance abuse, the tendency is to ignore those signs and feelings. If I don’t feel it then I do not have to act on it. But it is important to recognize those thoughts and feelings and they are there for a reason, not as a sign of weakness but a message to look at oneself in a compassionate way
  • Getting help from others: as the red flags increase this is the time to reach out for help from safe people. One of the biggest struggles from those who suffer from PTSD and Substance abuse is to ask for help and the tendency is to isolate. As the triggers become more intense it is the tendency to stay away and isolate. One suggestion is to plan in advance who you can call and rehearse what you can say to ask for help
  • Listen to the” whispers before they become screams”: Develop a safety plan that can be shared with a family member, sponsor or significant other. Identify red flags at mild, Moderate and emergency levels of danger. The earlier in the process to take action the better.
  • Green Flags: are safe coping skills, for example..red flag isolation..green flag spending time with supportive people, attending a meeting, calling your sponsor…Too much free time can be another red flag..green flag is adding more structure to your day.  

It is important in early recovery to identify which red/green flags are the most prominent for you and think of a time when you used or had an unsafe behavior. Which red flags lead up to it and can you identify if it is one red flag or a combination of red flags? 

This is a good coping strategy to help understand yourself and your triggers rather than blaming and placing judgement on self

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