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Avoiding ‘Triggers’ Is a Doomed Relapse Prevention Strategy

Rising costs. Falling revenues. It seems that the one thing that governments around the world have in common is an inability to balance their books. Here in Canada, legislators seem determined to raise revenues through liquor sales and gambling (online and otherwise). New casinos and private liquor outlets are making drinking and gambling more and more convenient. While this may help fill government coffers, research has shown that rising access leads to rising social problems associated with abuse. *

So what is an addict supposed to do when there’s a pub, liquor store or casino in every neighbourhood? Traditionally, treatment programs would teach coping skills as part of a relapse prevention plan. For the client, this would often mean learning how to avoid “triggers” – people, places and things – involving the presence of alcohol or gambling. At Sunshine Coast, we think a recovery strategy based on avoidance is not enough; an addict must also find a reason to quit their addiction. In othe words, motivation is a critical first step.

And when it comes to finding motivation, there’s a lot of research to suggest that helping clients develop a sense of independence and, paradoxically, a strong social network are crucial to a lasting recovery.


In psychology, independence, autonomy, and power is often referred to, collectively, as agency.

Typical testimonials of clients who struggle with agency include:

“My boss treats me like a piece of meat.”
“I would be fine if I didn’t have to work such long hours.”
“I gamble because it’s one of the only things I’m good at.”

At Sunshine Coast, some of the ways we promote agency include:

1. coaching – housekeeping, kitchen staff and administrators are trained in recovery coaching which involves active listening and supporting clients to work out their own problems
2. client-centered therapy – therapists treat clients with unconditional, positive regard and encourage clients to be ‘authors of their lives’
3. narrative therapy – clients learn to separate themselves from, take ownership of, and, eventually, rewrite their life story.
4. programming – clients gain a sense of agency via accomplishment. Activities include creative arts (music, painting), fitness, sports, etc.

In this video, Geoff Thompson, Program Director at Sunshine Coast, gives several examples of celebrities (Drew Barrymore, Eric Clapton, etc.) who embraced agency and overcame their addictions:


On the other hand, communion encompasses love, friendship, respect, support, unity and harmony. In contrast to agency, communion is about connecting to something beyond oneself as opposed to a focus on the self.

Clients who struggle with communion may say:

“My kids don’t have time for me.”
“I would rather stay home and watch TV.”
“I don’t fit in.”

Some of the features of our program that promote communion include:

1. free weekend intensives for families
2. an all-male peer group
3. team sports and offsite group activities (hikes, spectator sports, etc.)
4. group therapy


Like the yin and yang of Chinese philosophy, agency and communion are complementary, not opposing, forces. They are interconnected and interdependent. One cannot exist without the other. At Sunshine Coast, staff help clients strive for balance between these twin motives; too much agency leads to isolation and too much community leads to passivity. This struggle for balance is a recovery strategy that, we believe, holds more promise than merely avoiding triggers.

(*) Source: Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia, Influence Economic Availability: Theory and Evidence website page.


Diehl, M., Owen, S.K., Youngblade, L.M. (2004) Agency and communion attributes in adults’ spontaneous self-representations. International Journal of Behavioral Development; 28: 1.

Bakan, D. (1966) The duality of human existence: Isolation and communion in Western man.

McAdams, D.P., Hoffman, B.J., Mansfield, E.D., and Day, R. (1996) Themes of agency and communion in significant autobiographical scenes. Journal of Personality, 64, 339-377.

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