ARTICLE SUMMARY: You cannot completely remove triggers from your psyche. Triggers for your drug-of-choice can stay with you for the rest of your life. But you don’t need to act on them. This article can serve as a guide for how to work through them.
ESTIMATED READING TIME: 15 minutes.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What is a Trigger?
- The Brain
- Are Triggers Normal?
- When You’re Most Vulnerable
- What You Can Do
- Who Can Help You with Triggers
- What Do The Experts Say?
What is a Trigger?
Simply put, a trigger is a thing that makes you want to drink or use drugs. A trigger can be:
- an event
- a memory
- a sensation (smell, taste, sound)
- a location
- a feeling
- a person or group of people
- or even an anniversary of a tragic loss
…each of these things can make you want to turn to drugs or alcohol as your way of coping; the drug-of-choice becomes your “way out.”
How else can we define triggers?
This article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry notes that triggers can be understood as, “certain situations, places, or people associated with the type of behavior in question.” Further, addiction triggers are commonly external in nature. The external triggers can be stressful situations, high-risk places that remind you and are somehow associated with your drug abuse history. In short, these external triggers can be divided into two subcategories:
- Environmental triggers which include places that might provoke relapse.
- Social triggers associated with interactions and communication with people, the so called “bad company” which may drag you to going back to substance abuse.
So, can coping with these triggers become easier over time?
We think so!
Indeed, the founding principles of healthy addiction recovery teach people how to be aware of possible triggers, learn how to recognize them, and learn how to act upon a trigger should it occur. We hope to teach you the basics here.
Triggers are the things that remind a person of substance use behavior and induce a craving for the drug-of-choice.
Triggers are actually kind of like grooved pathways in the brain. When you are exposed to a trigger, your brain automatically responds to it unconsciously. It’s kind of like playing a wax record … and always hearing the same song.
Here’s what the process can look like, all in a matter of microseconds:
- See a white tablet.
- The brain quickly and unconsciously remembers what it’s like to be high.
- The brain triggers a body response. Your mouth develops saliva, or you feel a tingle in your nose.
- You want to crush and snort the tablet.
Why does all of this happen? And in such a short amount of time!
Like Pavlov’s dog, your brain becomes conditioned over time. With repeated drug use, you begin to associate your drug-of-choice as a “tool” which use to bring pleasure and happiness. The repetitive and excessive amounts of either dopamine or serotonin that most psychoactive drugs contain leave permanent records in the neural pathways.
According to this study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, “Several recent models of addiction have presented the concept that this heightened craving or wanting of drug is the behavioral manifestation of molecular and cellular changes in the stress and dopamine pathways.” In other words, drugs can change the brain … even physically.
Still, take hope!
While triggers can never be deleted completely from the “hard drive” of your brain, you can certainly influence their relative strength.
Are Triggers Normal?
Triggers are the so-called “provocateurs” or things associated with your previous substance abuse that are always going to test the level of your sobriety. Not only are triggers a normal part of every individual recovery process, but they are almost inevitable to avoid.
You are never going to be able to escape from life that surrounds you.
You might see a person drinking alcohol in a beach chair and feel a pang of craving and then sense a cold drink hitting your tongue. Or, you may pass an unknown stranger in the night using drugs … and taste the cocaine trickling down the back of your throat. Perhaps you sniff the scent of nicotine or weed in the air at a festival. A needle during a blood test can trigger the rush of euphoria that heroin used to bring on.
Whatever your particular cue…awareness and context are key!
Anyone in recovery is expected to have certain places, people, odors, or memories, that remind them of their drug-of-choice. Sometimes, a trigger can make active addiction seem nostalgic or even preferable to what’s going on in the moment. But, while we can never absolutely get rid of those triggers – because we are always taking in information from the outside environment – we can learn how to work through them.
When are You Most Vulnerable?
Triggers manifest as internal or external forces that compel a person to act compulsively and return to his/her previous drug of choice. We’ve listed many of the common external triggers in the sections above. But note here that internal triggers can be even more powerful. What are they?
Internal triggers are states of mind or body that make us most vulnerable to relapse. Many people who attend 12 Step meeting may know them under the acronym HALT, which is a shortened version of assessing whether you are:
These triggers are connected to your emotional state. And if you are either hungry, angry, lonely, or tired – or any combination of the four – life can seem overwhelming and stressful. And you can be triggered right back to your drug-of-choice.
What You Can Do
What can you do about triggers?
When people are trapped by triggers they tend to feel a roundup of emotions such as: anger, fear and despair. These chaotic moments can destroy all the previous successful efforts and lead you back into the vicious circle of addiction. In order to avoid the unwanted consequences, consider the following precautions:
STEP 1: Identify your addiction triggers.
This step requires that you develop new self-awareness. So, you’ll need to start pay attention to your senses, to the things that happen around you, and the way you react to them. Practicing self-awareness and observing reactions can greatly help you to identify possible threats that may lead you to relapse. Once you detect your unique and individual triggers, make a list of them and update it from time to time.
STEP 2: DO NOT deny, repress, nor fight an urge alone.
When we tend to repress internal processes, they become stronger. Keep this rule in mind whenever you notice yourself fighting a craving for drugs and/or alcohol. Instead, be aware of and acknowledge the trigger. But this does not mean that you need to surrender to them. Count to ten and then tell yourself that you are in control.“If we believe we are [in control], we are much more likely to have an impact on our behaviors,” said NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow. Finally, ask for help when they hit you.
STEP 3: CREATE A TRIGGER COPING PLAN.
This step may require some professional help.
Generally, experts recommend that when an emotional dissatisfaction acts as a trigger, you can try to find other alternatives that bring pleasure which do not involve drugs or alcohol abuse. Further, to prevent a slip-up, anticipate and avoid troublesome situations. This plan can include contacting people from your network or support, calling a hotline number, or removing yourself from a stressful situation.
What Do The Experts Say?
Kenneth Pecoraro, LCSW, LCADC, CCS who has over two decades of experience in providing treatment for individuals with substance use says:
“One of the first concepts that someone with a substance abuse issue learns in the recovery process is to, ‘Change people, places and things’. Although avoiding people, places and things is an essential part of recovery and relapse prevention, there is a lot more to think about when it come to our connection of persons, things, or ideas by some common factor.”
- Old haunts and old friends.
- Justification of “just once.
- Toxic relationships.
- Unhealthy choices.
- High-pressure situations.
Who Can Help You With Triggers?
When dealing with triggers in everyday life you can always rely on the following modalities:
- Anger management
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Counseling and other psychological services
- Stress management
But where can you find help?
- Look for a licensed counselor in the APA psychologist finder.
- Do a Google search for “site:.gov addiction trigger coping”.
- Talk with a trusted friend, mentor, or spiritual guide.
Getting Rid Of Triggers Once And For All?
It is possible?
No. But can you weaken the power of a trigger. Indeed, you weaken the association of pleasure with your drug-of-choice in the reward center of the brain by just staying sober.
One thing is certain, triggers are going to be everywhere around you! You can never eliminate all the sounds, smells, tastes, nor completely isolate yourself from dangerous situations and people, but you can learn how to control your impulses. Happiness and pleasure lie in so many other hobbies and activities that you can do. Discover them, because they will be your best guardian when a cue surprises you from out of the blue.
Did you find something of value about getting rid of trigger in addiction recovery? We hope so.
Feel free to comment and ask more questions in the designated section below. We’ll try to answer all legitimate inquiries personally and promptly, or if we don’t know the answers, we’ll refer you to someone who does.