By Claudia Black, Ph.D., Senior Fellow and Clinical Architect of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center at The Meadows
Triggers are specific memories, behaviors, thoughts and situations that jeopardize recovery - signals you are entering a stage that brings you closer to a relapse. The process is much like riding a roller coaster that loops over itself. Once the roller coaster car gets to a certain spot in the track, a threshold is met, there is no turning back, and it starts the downward loop. Just as gravity has a motivating effect on a roller coaster, brain chemistry has a similar effect motivating triggers. When people use substances or engage in escape behaviors the brain releases neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine that trigger the brain’s pleasure/reward center; or it may release serotonin which lessens anxiety and depression.
Will power alone is not a defense against a relapse. Recovery is achieved, maintained and enjoyed through a series of actions. Learn to identify your triggers, and with each one identify a plan that anticipates and de-escalates the power of the trigger. With that, your reward is another day of sobriety and endless possibilities.
Five Common Triggers
Romanticizing the Behaviors
Romanticizing involves a tunnel focus only on the positive feelings you associate with the behavior, it is glamorizing using behaviors and in the moment totally forgetting about the negative consequences.
Getting overwhelmed at times is to be expected, but it’s very easy to slip into romanticizing without any insight as to how you got there and at that moment you enter a slippery zone, touching the trigger. While romanticizing is in and of itself a trigger, it is often in tandem with an external trigger such as noises, sights, sounds or even tastes. You could be watching a movie and the next thing you know it is depicting the power of alcohol, drugs and sex in a positive way and you are off into romanticizing. Or you’re listening to the radio and an advertisement for a drug comes on, and you think about your pain pills as the commercial goes on to tell you how much better you’ll feel, and off you go. Or you’re watching a ball game on TV and as you watch you can almost smell the popcorn and peanuts and you see the spectators drinking large cups of beer and everyone is smiling like it’s only a good time.
Take a few moments to think about how you romanticize your addictive behavior: What do I find yourself thinking about? What is the romanticizing covering up? What am I forgetting to take into account?
Recovery is the ability to tolerate your feelings without the need to medicate, engage in self-destructive or self-defeating behaviors and thoughts. Addicts have used their behaviors and substances for years to separate from their emotional states. And there is so much to feel about—guilt for how your behavior has hurt others; sadness for your losses; anger with yourself; fear of what is in front of you; shame for thinking you are inadequate, not worthy. You can act out in response to every feeling imaginable.
Any person or situation can trigger threatening feelings. You are upset when you realize your friends are reluctant to include you on a weekend outing because you created a scene last time. You want the people you work with to like you but you are anxious that you will be rejected, or not welcomed. Your sister won’t let you babysit her kids anymore and you feel guilty, sad and angry. You just met with your ex-wife and you walk away angry, like always when you see her.
You are working hard in your recovery and you know you are doing pretty well, but it still isn’t easy to have these feelings and not be reactive. You lessen or get rid of feelings when you own them, talk about them, or in some cases engage in problem-solving. It is when you try to divert, ignore, and numb that you get into trouble. Feelings are a part of the human condition and you can’t escape them, so the goal is to learn how to tolerate the feelings.
Recognize the gifts that come with feelings. Feelings are cues and indicators telling you what you need. Loneliness tells you in your humanness you need connection, fear can offer you protection, sadness offers growth, guilt is your conscious, offering direction for amends. It is critical for you to have this insight, and more importantly to start to take ownership of recognizing the feelings when you have them. It is vital to learn how to be with the feeling and how to appropriately express it. It is also necessary to find safe people in which to share your emotional experiences.
So when you recognize your feelings ask yourself …
What do I need? What feelings are ones I go to any length to avoid? What is the price you pay for hiding or masking those feelings?
Coupled with the trigger of feelings is the fact those feelings are often associated with loss. By the time you get to recovery you have had multiple losses in your life, often losses related to childhood, many times due to being raised with abuse, addiction, mental illness, etc. While you may have experienced trauma within your original family, the pain of loss may be from a specific situation; You may have experienced the loss of relationship with your parents or children; or the death of friends, family; or abortions, career or work opportunities missed. As an addict, you are likely to have losses related to health issues. Perhaps you have Hepatitis C, or HIV, or injuries due to accidents.
The goal is not to dwell on your losses, but to not live in the pain and anguish of them which is what happens when you don’t acknowledge them and what they mean, triggering you back to your using behavior. With some loss, you can only grieve, and ultimately come to find some meaning from your experience, with others in time, you can attempt to repair damaged relationships.
Resentment is also a feeling but I think it warrants its own place as a significant trigger. Resentments are often built on assumptions, When you don’t look at me I assume you think you are better than me. When you don’t include me in a social gathering, I am assuming you think I am not good enough to be with you and your friends. They are also built on entitlement, which is a form of unrealistic expectations and impatience. For example:
I have been in recovery six weeks now. I resent the fact that my wife still doesn’t trust me. Now that I am clean and sober my boss should give me that promotion I deserve.
The attitude in both examples is not just that you should be rewarded for doing well, but that you should be rewarded for the sacrifices made. After all, you have given up your alcohol, your drugs, and/or the addictive behavior and therefore deserve to be rewarded. The problem here is that you are still more connected to the loss than to the gifts of sobriety. Ways to move from resentments are – when assuming, check it out; put yourself in someone else’s shoes (it may allow expectations to be more realistic); identify and own the feelings the resentment is covering (often it’s a cover for feelings of inadequacy and/or fear); be willing to live and let live.
Some questions to consider:
What does it mean for me to hang onto resentments? What would it mean to accept that I have been hurt or wronged and that I can no longer change that? What does it mean to take responsibility for my own feelings? Ultimately who pays the price for hanging onto resentments? Today am I willing to let go of resentments?
Slippery people, places or situations
You need to identify specific triggers that are people, places, and situations that are high risk. Slippery people could be your ex-lover, certain family members, past using/party buddies. A slippery place might be a bar you used to frequent, a casino or an area in your community where you cruised. Slippery situations could be an emotionally charged social gathering, such as a wedding, a family event, or vacation setting. In essence, any place that triggers a positive association with the use of your drug of choice.
Medication may be also a trigger for which you need to be accountable. While there are situations where medication is needed, you are at high risk of abuse. You need to be proactive in how you are going to cope with this situation because it is likely your brain is going to remember a good feeling, saying more is better. Just because you are agitated, doesn’t mean you need a prescription pill. Again, there are situations where medications are necessary, but self-diagnosis and/or self-prescribing only create a recipe for disaster.
What are the people, places or situations that are potential triggers? What creates the greatest safety for me to not get triggered? What triggers can I avoid? If I can’t avoid a certain place, can I lessen the contact or time? Is going into this slippery situation worth the risk?
You Have Options in Recovery
While some decisions around triggers are absolute, others are not necessary for your entire life. Know your triggers and make a plan accordingly. In the face of a trigger, what do you need to do? What do you need to tell yourself? Who can you reach out to for support and or problem solving?
1) Practice staying in the present, don’t sit in the past or project into the future
2) Validate the gifts of recovery for the day – practice gratitude daily
3) Identify, build and use a support system – you need to stay connected. History and experience has proven time and time again, that recovery is not a solitary process, and cannot be sustained in isolation.
4) Trust your Higher Power is on your side
Need Help Achieving or Maintaining Sobriety?
Whether you are new to treatment or transitioning from inpatient treatment, you may need a program that helps you to build skills for maintaining your sobriety. In addition to its “mainstream” intensive outpatient program, The Meadows Outpatient Center offers a program designed specifically for young adults, ages 18 – 26. The Claudia Black Young Adult Outpatient Program is designed to foster the development of the individual while helping them build skills to prevent relapse as they transition into a more fulfilling and self-sufficient life. Call today for more information: 800-244-4949.