prescription pills on music notebook

Why Music Can Be A Trigger

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Someone once said that “music is the soundtrack of our lives.” There are few on this planet that can hear a song from their youth and not be transported back to a time and place when that particular song was significant. With that transportation comes a complete reliving, a complete refeeling of anything surrounding that song. It can remind us of that perfect summer night when all was right with the world and our lives stretched out ahead of us with endless possibilities, or it can remind us of the darker times when we sought solace in music to escape or find meaning in our pain. Music is that most versatile expression of art, that touches more human beings than any other art form, and so it is safe to say that music holds a power for most of us, that few other things do.

This is especially true for the addict or alcoholic, who for the years prior to getting sober did everything in their life while under the influence. This means that for that time period almost all music is associated with the usage of drugs or alcohol, whether that be positive or negative. Music to the addict or alcoholic can recall the memories of partying with friends, dancing all night in a club, or it can recall memories of being alone in their room, drinking themselves into oblivion. Regardless of which direction the memory takes, music can for many in sobriety trigger unwanted emotions. Emotions that if left unchecked can lead to, with the influence of other factors, a relapse.

Why Music Can Be A Trigger 

To some people, this may seem like an insane concept. I mean how could listening to a song trigger someone to want to use, but to the alcoholic or addict who has experienced this, it is not insane, but something very real. I spoke to one alcoholic who has been sober for 7 years about this, and his interjections were very telling. He told me, “There are certain artists, like Eliot Smith and Pink Floyd that I just can’t really listen to anymore. They are so ingrained with a very dark time in my life, that even though I don’t necessarily want to use when I hear their music, it just makes me feel terrible and reminds me of the darkness of that time.”

He went on to tell me, “Over the years I have challenged myself to listen to some of their music in order to remove the negative associations that I have with it, but for the most part, I just don’t listen to them. I realized when I got sober that I had to change everything about myself and part of that for me was the music that I listened to as well. Music always brought up very strong emotions in me and since I was not in a particularly good place when I was using, a lot of my musical choices reflected this.”

This is just one example of how music can trigger someone’s emotions in sobriety, and not everyone will experience it this way, but another addict that I talked to discussed the influence of music in triggering cravings in her early sobriety. She said, “When I was partying we would always listen to certain music, and so when I was in rehab and that music would come on I would think about the good times that I had with my friends and it would make me want to go out and use. After a time, this stopped, but in the beginning, the draw was pretty strong.”

So why exactly does music have this effect on addicts and alcoholics? How is it that a few minutes of drums, guitars, and singing can result in someone’s entire thought processes changing? Dr. Genevieve Dingle, a Queensland University Psychologist sought to find out just that. Her findings about why music can be a trigger for someone who is getting sober are interesting, and can help the newly sober man or woman avoid the unnecessary cravings that music can produce.

music concert

Empirical Reasons For Why Music Can Produce Cravings

Dr. Dingle’s research, which was presented at the Australian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs Conference, showed that there was a strong linkage between music and drug and alcohol abuse. Her findings showed that there was empirical evidence that music could cue a strong emotional response, which would trigger memories, and for the drug addict and alcoholic these memories were usually centered around substance abuse. This is something that is commonly known among newly sober people, but her research went further and Dr. Dingle discovered that lyrics could act as a way of recreating rituals. Dr. Dingle said, “Lyrics are also mechanisms – for example Cheap Wine or Cocaine evoke rituals around substances and people have said it has been a trigger to relapse.” Whether this means that the lyrics themselves trigger the remembrance of the ritual related to drug usage, or that certain lyrics are tied to the personal rituals of the person, the results are the same, a triggered response where the drug addict or alcoholic emotionally remembers using.

Rituals are a huge part of alcohol and substance abuse and for many, breaking these rituals are tremendously difficult. Substance abuse is more than just drinking or drugging, it is everything that goes with it, the lifestyle that is created, and that in turn perpetuates the substance abuse. It is a vicious cycle that can be exceedingly difficult to break and so triggering a ritualistic remembrance can have an extremely adverse effect on the newly sober addict or alcoholic and can cause them to go back to the drink or drug. Dr. Dingle hopes that her research will educate people on the possible hazards that music can pose in early sobriety and, “help people to regulate their emotional arousals both up and down.”

Seeking Treatment for Drug Addiction and Alcoholism

Though music can trigger cravings for drugs and alcohol, it does not need to lead to a relapse. The trained professionals at First Steps Recovery are aware of this hazard and can help you to navigate it successfully. If you are in need of drug or alcohol treatment call us today, at 1-844-489-0836. Our recovery specialists are standing by to help you start your road to recovery.

Meet Our Team
Meet Our Team

From our certified therapists and nurses to our emotional support animal "Cooper", our entire team is dedicated to the health and success of our clients throughout our program and beyond.

Help Is Available. Speak With Someone Today.

Our admission team is available to help 24/7.
Skip to content