Have you ever noticed how dogs seem to notice or smell something and bolt away from their owner without a moment’s hesitation? They seem to be on autopilot, hunting, sniffing, exploring.
Dogs have learned to associate (not consciously) a smell or sound with an action they should take. In fact you see it all over the animal kingdom. Contemplating this gives a fairly good picture of what happens in us when we experience a stimulus as a “trigger”.
Understanding the Role of Triggers in Addiction
If you have struggled with an addiction you know that at any moment an image, person, thought or any number of other things can “set you off”.
It seems as though that split-second experience cranked a massive lever in your head and now your whole body and brain are responding differently—it is as though your inner dog shot off the leash and is frantically looking for a squirrel.
When we don’t stop to consider what is happening then these triggers act like traps, occurring over and over again. Your greatest weapon is slowing this process down is the question, “What happened before that?”
Once you are aware that you have gone into autopilot, you need to immediately ask, “What just happened before this?” As you practice this intentional effort you will find thoughts, images, feelings and more that occurred just before, and will give you clues as to your vulnerabilities.
Withstanding the urge to turn towards a trigger when your brain has learnt a patterned response is hard work. You need to have mental energy and commitment. I have written other articles about calming the body and turning away from triggers, but here we are going to discover how to learn from triggers and become better prepared for the future.
Internal Versus External Triggers
There are internal and external triggers to become aware of. Internal triggers are your internal experience, such as emotions, sensations, thoughts or being tired. Very often these can arise from external triggers, which include things like provocative images, someone being mean to you, or seeing a smartphone with Internet access.
When you notice that you are feeling tempted, you have been triggered. Immediately stop and ask, “What happened just before this?” And keep asking it until you discover the “activating event”—the actual trigger that makes sense to you.
When you have discovered it you can then write down answers to the following questions. As you do this every time you are triggered you will build your awareness, resilience and ability to make changes.
- What was the trigger?
- Was it internal or external?
a. If it was internal, did an external trigger provoke it?
b. What is it about that trigger that provokes me?
- Where is the trigger found/located/experienced commonly?
- What practical steps can I take to avoid or manage this trigger in the future?
There is nothing magical about this process, it simply demystifies your experience and enables you to stop automatically running off after squirrels! An example is as follows:
“I was triggered by seeing that billboard with an attractive person on it. This is external, but makes my heart start pounding which feels like when I act out. It is always there on the side of that building on my way home—I often feel lonely on my way home to an empty house. I am going to commit to taking the other route I know of to avoid this trigger and call a friend as I walk so I don’t feel so alone.”
Learning to Identify and Cope With Triggers
It isn’t always easy to identify all of this information right away, and your ability to do so needs to be strengthened. The following is a list of questions that will help you very practically dissect triggers when you find yourself giving into their temptation:
- How intense was the impulse you experienced?
- What were you thinking about before it occurred?
- How did you feel physically before the impulse?
- What events happened before the impulse?
- What did you try just before acting on the impulse? (To stop yourself)
- If you used a medium, what was it? (Phone etc)
- How did you feel emotionally through this impulse?
- What feelings happened following your behavior from this impulse?
- What behavior/results occurred after your acting out occurred?
- What else did you learn?
As you begin taking time to learn about your triggers and how you respond, you are better positioned to make changes. I encourage you to share this journey with a support group or a counselor.
Having support and accountability is incredibly helpful when trying to turn off autopilot and regain control. It is worth noting that this is a learning process and it is very likely that it will take you time to achieve your goals. Your brain will be growing and changing with every small step you take even when you don’t see immediate results.
Community Discussion – Share Your Thoughts Here!
What are your most effective ways of dealing with triggers in your addiction recovery?
About the author: Paul Loosemore, MA PLPC, author of “21 Movements Towards Life” – The step-by-step guide to recovering from sexual addiction or pornography. Paul works as a mental health counselor, and consults with those who wish to recover from Sexual Addiction—both individuals and couples. He is the founder of www.stopsexualaddiction.com where you can find his guide, or contact him.
: Adapted from: Dindinger (2014) Pornography addiction, breaking the chains.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 11, 2017.
Published on AddictionHope.com