When you or someone you know is in recovery you will often hear of something called an “addiction trigger” or just a “trigger”. Most people in recovery will try their best to avoid these triggers at all costs but what are triggers and why do they matter?
Simply put, a trigger can be anything that throws back memories, thoughts, or feelings that have to do with an addiction.
Triggers How do they work?
Well, in order to understand an addiction trigger, we should first look to understand how addiction affects the brain. Essentially it rewires the reward circuitry in the brain. You see, your brain is a wonderful thing which is programmed for survival. Have you noticed how you naturally avoid pain from things like fire and seek out things like pleasure like eating sweet, nutritious fruits? You feel positive and happy after you exercise or have a conversation with a friend because these healthy behaviours affect you in a good way, and you get a little kick of feel-good chemicals in your brain from them.
Addiction takes control of this natural reward circuitry, as drugs flood our brains with feel-good chemicals. Like a climber who spends time in the mountains over a period of time and gets used to the altitude, over time, an addict gets used to larger doses of chemical rewards, and will go to dramatic lengths to achieve that same feeling.
As an addict, we start to anticipate the big kicks of feel-good chemicals coming from our next hit, so much so that even the events and activities associated with the actual action of taking the drug can cause a change in our brain. This is where triggers come into action. Anything linked to or associated with the thoughts, feelings or memories of addiction is a trigger. It can cause your brain to act like a computer and reboot to the broken reward circuitry, resulting in cravings for a substance be it drugs, alcohol or behaviours long after you think you may have given them up.
In the early parts of recovery, the lack of those oh-so-craved extra feel good chemicals coming from our addiction of choice causes us to feel out of sync. Our brain slows down the process of creating as many feel good chemicals because it’s been programmed (or rather rewired) to the boost from our addiction.
Why do Addiction triggers matter?
An addict can feel hopeless, a sense of despair can overcome our minds and we often feel like we are drowning in a sea of uncertainty at times, waves of depression and angst hitting our broken boat as we navigate the tempest of our addiction. There is however a lighthouse! The more we understand the fundamentals of how addiction works, the better equipped we are to be active heroes in our own recoveries. Sometimes it may feel like a relapse comes out of the blue, when in fact triggers are the reason.
The art of identifying our own triggers, (yes it can be called an art!) and learning to navigate through those triggers as a part of the recovery process, can help us avoid relapse and other tough situation. When we find ourselves craving our substance of choice, there are questions we can ask about recent events: “how am I feeling? “ And “Did anything specific happen recently?” We could find new insight about feelings, situations and even people which lead us back towards our addiction.
Common addiction triggers:
People, Places and things:
If you went a certain bar and drank every night, walking back into that bar while in recovery will set your brain up to anticipate a drink. The same is true for the people that we used drugs, drank, or practiced behaviours with. Also, paraphernalia, music or things associated with our previous addiction can spark that same trigger. Often in early recovery, it is often encouraged to evaluate relationships and ensure you can avoid situations and environments.
Emotions, negative and positive can be a trigger for someone in recovery. For many of us, our real emotions were covered with our addiction of choice and we used substances or behaviours to cover them up whenever they would come up. Unfortunately this makes emotions, a natural aspect of human life, and a trigger. You can avoid the emotions by changing certain habits and routines. For example: If you are triggered while shopping near a wine store and get anxious – go to a mall without a bottle store or order online. Track your emotional triggers like stress, anxiety, grief and find ways to dodge them in your daily life.
Triggers may sound scary but anything we don’t understand often is. Understanding your triggers and finding healthy coping skills to manage your own emotions, instead of going back to your addiction, can be empowering! If you want to avoid the triggers associated with people and places – often avoiding them is a common and viable solution.
Some addiction triggers coping skill tips while in recovery:
Talk with your sponsor, a professional at an addiction recovery centre or family members (supportive ones only)
Take time for yourself – deep breaths, walking around the neighbourhood, meditation.
Check if you are hungry, angry, lonely, tired HALT these are all feelings that can not only be triggering themselves but can also make our defences lower in handling other trigger emotions or events.
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