Change Your Environment, A Critical Strategy in Overcoming Addiction

Sober woman at new house

Addiction experts have cautioned for years that newly recovered addicts should be mindful of and avoid the old environments they once frequented when using drugs and alcohol. The logic behind such warnings was simple enough. Recovering addicts are now attempting to turn over a new leaf. Doing so may be hampered by going to the old environments, hanging out with the old friends, and frequenting the old establishments where they once used drugs and alcohol.

Now, several recently published research papers explore the science behind why recovering addicts should seek new, healthy environments.

Environmental Cues and Drug-Using Behavior

Researchers at the University of Guelph found that environmental cues can be strong triggers for those trying to kick a drug habit. Why? Because environmental cues activate emotions, stimulus-response systems, and memories. According to the data, there’s a great deal of relapse risk when a recovering alcohol addict walks by the bar they used to get drunk at or when a recovering addict reconnects with a friend with whom they used to experiment with drugs and alcohol.1

The scientists who studied the issue found that environments, where the drug or alcohol abuse took place, impinge on recovering addicts in a number of ways:

People in a bar
  • Seeing an environment where the person used mind-altering substances can trigger emotions and feelings that the person felt while high, leading to a resurgence of drug or alcohol cravings and increasing the risk for relapse.
  • Recovering addicts are constantly working to retake control of their body’s stimulus-response system, i.e., the urge to use drugs when presented with environmental stimuli that once prompted drug use. Unfortunately, re-entering an environment where drug use happened can trigger stimulus-response systems, putting the recovering addict at risk.
  • Environmental cues also activate memories of drug and alcohol use. Moving back into an old apartment where one got high countless times can trigger those old memories of getting high, which can also pose a risk for relapse.

Emotions, stimulus-response, and memories are all factors of a recovering addict’s psychology that they are trying to get control of during their recovery. It seems that exposing oneself to old drug-using environments harms all of the above, hence why recovering addicts should avoid such environments.

The researchers involved in the study could also differentiate between memories of environments that are not connected to addiction and memories that are. In the words of psychology professor and study co-author Francesco Leri, “Stimuli in our environment such as buildings, objects and places are normally fairly innocuous. When they’re associated with drugs of abuse, they can become modifiers of memory function.” The researchers commented on how the combination of memories, emotions, and stimulus-response/drug cravings all connected to a single environment can overwhelmingly affect someone who recently got off drugs and alcohol.2

Further Research on the Connection Between Environment and Addiction

There is a growing wealth of knowledge on the importance of a new, drug-free, supportive, and safe environment for recovering addicts. One addiction recovery resource published information encouraging recovering drug addicts to go so far as to avoid bars and nightclubs, even if alcohol was not their drug of choice. Simply being around other people using a mind-altering substance can trigger old memories and stimuli to once again reach for a drug or try a new substance (like alcohol).3

“From attending a pub for ‘after-work drinks’ to your kitchen bench while home alone, to a particular social hangout, these places can be associated with cravings…”

Another author talked about the ‘learned environment’ aspect of addiction. Dr. Adi Jaffe says, “From attending a pub for ‘after-work drinks’ to your kitchen bench while home alone, to a particular social hangout, these places can be associated with cravings. When behaviors are repeated, they can be conditioned to a particular place or situation and these learned habits can be hard to break. These triggers can be amplified when the physical place and the people in it are both associated with alcohol or drug abuse.” The memories of substance abuse in a certain environment exacerbated by the repetition of substance abuse in that same environment seem to program the mind to associate that environment with the individual’s former drug of choice.4

Frineds hangout at night

Another paper expanded on the adaptation of humans to their environment. This paper explored how humans tend to associate certain environments with their activities and habits while in those environments. This finding also lends itself to the predominant rule of thumb that those trying to stay off drugs and alcohol should not return to the same environments where they once used drugs and alcohol.5

Yet another study explored how positive environments can have a beneficial effect on recovering addicts if those environments are new, exciting, unique, stimulating, and explorative. From that study, it was found that enriched environments help recovering addicts strengthen their recovery. These findings suggest that rather than recovering addicts returning home to the same environments, social circles, daily activities, and locales where they once used drugs (where they can risk relapse), recovering addicts should branch out and seek new environments. Doing so increases their odds of a relapse-free recovery.6

Getting new job

A Drug-Free Environment Is Key to a Drug-Free Life

Because drug and alcohol addiction consumes every aspect of life for those who fall into such traps, it makes sense that those in recovery should be mindful of how any aspect of their former life, their former environments included, may still impinge on them if they’re not careful. From the people they once spent time with, to the foods they ate, the daily rituals observed, and the environments frequented, these can create powerful cues and triggers to resume using drugs and alcohol. That’s why one of the keys to a successful recovery is to build strength and stability in new environments, day-to-day activities, and social groups.

By branching out and experiencing new life in new places and with new people and activities, recovering addicts can leave drug abuse behind and lead healthier, happier lives.


  1. LearnMem. “Cocaine, nicotine, and their conditioned contexts enhance consolidation of object memory in rats.” University of Guelph, 2019. ↩︎

  2. ScienceDaily. “Why environmental cues make drug addiction extra hard to beat.” Science Daily, 2019. ↩︎

  3. HelpGuide. “Overcoming Drug Addiction.” Help Guide International, 2022. ↩︎

  4. Psychology Today. “6 Ways Your Environment Is Influencing Your Addiction.” Psychology Today, 2018. ↩︎

  5. SageJournals. “Rethinking Addiction.” Global Pediatric Health, 2019. ↩︎

  6. PNAS. “Reversal of cocaine addiction by environmental enrichment.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2008. ↩︎