• Judeline Galek

Understanding Triggers in Addiction and Recovery

If this isn’t the first article you are reading about drug and alcohol addiction, chances are you have heard the word ‘trigger’ a lot. But, what are triggers and why are they important? Can only people with addiction be “triggered”? How do I know if I’m triggered? What is the healthiest way to manage triggers?

The truth is, everything and anything can be a trigger. In short, all interactions with the world (people, places, things) that generate strong urges and cravings to cope in a particular way that we have initially determine is not healthy. An example of this can be that you decided not to watch as much Netflix as you currently do, but you find yourself at home alone (bored) with nothing to do but watch Netflix. In this case, we can agree that perhaps being bored is a trigger. Another example, someone deciding to cut out coffee from his diet only to have coffee when presented with the opportunity to drink coffee. In this case the triggers would be: 1) being offered coffee, 2) It is available and others are drinking it, and 3) the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

Triggers are vital to understand because it is not only the addicted person who experiences triggers: everyone in the family does. Triggers (as they pertain to drug and alcohol addiction) for the family stem from the addicted person’s behavior and choice of words. Triggers for the family is anything observed about the addicted person that generate a sense of uncertainty and suspicion.

What Does is Mean to Be Triggered?

In the most basic sense, a trigger is a ‘flashback’ to something that happened in the past. Typically triggers are involuntary - in this way they are different from conscious memories or thoughts about the past. For example, a certain smell, sight, sound, or other observation can cause your mind to instantly conjure up images, memories, and feelings from the past that you associate with the trigger itself. Triggers can also come from emotions, people, places, and objects.

In other words, a trigger is a stimulus that causes feelings of trauma or strife from the past to suddenly emerge.

Triggers also happen in an instant. It only takes 0.0000001 of a second for a smell, sound or sight to spark - trigger - a physical or emotional response in your body and mind.

Triggers can take many forms. For example, it may be a physical location or the anniversary of the traumatic event. A person could also be triggered by internal processes such as stress or anxiety. Sometimes the cause of triggers are predictable and easily identifiable, sometimes not.

Sometimes it is less intuitive to understand where a trigger is coming from. For example, a person who smelled incense during an assault or other traumatic event may be triggered and have a panic attack when they smell the same incense in a store, but may not be able to immediately understand they were triggered and why there are suddenly feeling panic.

Physical vs. Emotional Triggers

Physical Triggers

Triggers are powerful because they involve the senses. Sensory information plays a large part in memory, and the more sensory information that is stored about the trauma, the easier a memory is to recall.

Triggers are also habitual. People tend to stick to a routine, and the brain becomes conditioned to expect certain actions in certain situations. When we repeatedly do something, it becomes less of a conscious thought and is more of an unconscious behavior.

For example, say a person always smokes while they are driving. When a person gets in the car, their brain expects them to follow the same routine and light a cigarette. Thus, driving could trigger the urge to smoke, even if the person has already quit smoking. The person may not even be aware they were triggered, but find themselves thinking they really want a cigarette after they get in the car, even though they have gone all day without wanting one. In other words, a person can be triggered even without a conscious connection between behavior and surroundings.

Emotional Triggers

Not all triggers come from an external physical sensation. Triggers can also be internally generated, but the same unconscious responses in the brain described above happen when the trigger is emotional. Responses to emotional triggers are also typically involuntary and don’t involve conscious thought.

Essentially, an emotional trigger is a person, word, opinion, topic, or environmental situation that provoke an intense and excessive emotional, and oftentimes physical, reaction within us.

Have you ever noticed there is a topic of conversation that triggers you when talking with friends and/or family? You may feel triggered when a loved one says “I want to talk about your brother’s drinking”, for example, because the topic makes you feel uncomfortable and/or emotionally unsafe, and there is a history of trauma, conflict, and/or distress when conversations about his drinking occur.

Your brain goes into the same fight, flight, or freeze response as it would if you were presented with physical danger, because the memories from all the difficult conversations about this topic rise up all at once.

When discussing triggers as a loved one of someone with substance use disorder, the triggers are largely emotional, although they can be physical as well.

Identifying Triggers

The first step towards managing triggers is to identify them, and this can be trickier than it sounds.

It’s not always immediately apparent that you’re triggered, or why. So to start with, it’s important to understand the physical symptoms you may experience when you’re triggered. These include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Trembling

  • Desire to ‘escape’ or other avoidant behaviors

  • Palpitations/racing heart

  • Choking feeling or trouble breathing/swallowing

  • Hot flushes

  • Chills

  • Dizziness or faintness

  • Nausea

  • Chest pain/discomfort

  • Feelings of detachment/unreality (known as dissociation)

  • Sweating

  • Unease

Typically, emotions come after (or in conjunction with) the physical trigger. Intense emotions such as hatred, disgust, anger, fear, terror, grief, etc. often result in self-protective behavior such as shouting, arguing, insulting, hiding, crying, or otherwise emotionally reacting.

When we aren’t aware of our triggers, let alone how to handle them, it leads to prolonged time in active addiction and short periods of time between relapses.

Identifying triggers is vital because without bringing to consciousness what provokes extreme responses, we are like a puppet being constantly controlled by our emotions and reactions. Relationships become strained or ruined, and life is much more painful.

It is worth putting in the effort to explore emotional triggers - both as an individual and a member of the family unit. The more aware we are, the less we will be ruled by the unconscious forces.

Triggers and Mindfulness

Cultivating mindfulness, also referred to as self-awareness, while being kind and compassionate with yourself, is the key to managing triggers in a healthy and productive way.

Let me underscore the importance of being kind and compassionate to yourself through this process. Mindfulness is not about assigning blame - to yourself or to others. There is enough guilt, shame, pain, and anger when dealing with a loved one’s addiction, we don’t want to add more. Triggers and the ensuing behaviors and responses that result are NOT conscious, or deliberate. We have such strong reactions because addiction within the family unit causes trauma, and because we care. If we were indifferent to our loved one’s behavior, feelings, and/or well being, we would not be having such a strong, involuntary response.

Here are some ways to cultivate mindfulness and identify and address triggers:

  1. Pay attention to your body’s response. Learning to listen to our body is an essential tool for identifying and managing triggers. If you feel a tensing of your muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical change that generally indicates physically resisting what you’re experiencing, you are likely being triggered. Take note of your body’s reactions. Do your fists clench? Does your breathing accelerate? Does your face turn hot? Mentally note these reactions and even write them down. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle or extreme – so don’t rule anything out.

  2. Observe your thoughts. Look for extreme thoughts that you’re labeling (i.e. someone or something is good/bad, right/wrong, nice/evil, etc.). You don’t have to do anything else but be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them. Let them play out in your mind. What narrative is your mind creating about the other person or situation? Simply observe these thoughts and resist assigning meaning, or judgment, on them.

  3. Who (or what) caused the reaction? Once you have become aware of your body’s reactions and thought patterns, notice who or what has triggered the extreme physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes it’s a smell, sight, sound, object, word or other sensory impression that triggered you (physical trigger). Other times, you will notice that you are triggered by a viewpoint, conversational topic, relationship, or overall situation that triggered you (emotional trigger).

  4. Notice what was going on just before you were triggered. Sometimes there are certain patterns to triggers. For example, you may observe that every time the addicted person asks for money, you feel physically and/or emotionally triggered. It could be that you were expecting your addicted loved one home at a certain time and you do not receive an update about her whereabouts, or another example is someone walking out on you after an argument. Or you may notice every time you smell cigar smoke you are triggered, even if you don’t know exactly why yet. By simply noticing the patterns with objectivity and gentleness, you can then start to build a plan for how to manage these identifiable patterns in the future.

  5. Is there a need you have that isn’t being met? Being triggered almost invariably goes back to not having one or more of your deepest needs/desires met. Once the trigger and the situation(s) around the trigger are identified, you can go deeper and start to work on the root causes of what is causing them. For example, if you are triggered every time your loved one goes into the bathroom and stays there for a long time, the deeper causes of these can be feeling ignored/unappreciated and the sense that this person does not spend much quality time with you.

Tools for Managing Triggers

As you can see, identifying and managing triggers is a journey, and it takes time to uncover and address them. So, what can you do in the short term if you are triggered? Here are some basic skills and tools you can use:

  • Focus on your breath. Conscious breathing is a tool for bringing your attention away from the triggering event and getting yourself grounded. Focus on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. Breathing in for 3 or 4 seconds and then out for 3 or 4 seconds is helpful. If your attention goes back to the triggering situation, pull your attention back to your breathing.

  • Remove yourself. When you’re triggered and your brain is in flight, flight, or freeze mode, rational thoughts and reactions are difficult. Remove yourself from the situation. Walk away for a few minutes and cool down. Return when you are feeling more centered and calm.

  • Change your perspective. Remind yourself that feelings are just that - feelings. Feelings are NOT facts, but the emotions and reactions you are having are also valid. While focusing on your breath and/or removing yourself, it is helpful to cultivate positive self-talk to help you have a shift in perspective. Self-talk is powerful. For example, if you are in the middle of a really unpleasant and difficult conversation, your inner narrative may be ‘this always happens, it’s a disaster, nothing ever changes’. While these beliefs may be based in truth, a perspective shift is still helpful: ‘I’m here because I love my family, I am doing the best I can, I am safe and okay and we will move through this.’ The facts haven’t changed, but you are changing the discourse in your brain, removing or reducing triggers, and living in the solution.

  • Accept your feelings. Denying, repressing, or trying to “control” your triggers isn’t the answer, and turning away from emotions can often make them more powerful. Acceptance is a healthy way to have a balanced perspective, and it helps put you back into a mindset of loving-kindness (to yourself or to others). Triggers can mask emotions and cause us to unconsciously respond. By identifying and allowing your feelings, you can move through them, instead of around them. For example, telling yourself “I’m angry and upset. I feel resentful and hopeless” is more constructive than avoidance behaviors, lashing out, or allowing the trigger to be in control. By giving voice and acceptance to how you feel, you are laying a foundation for healing.

About Passaje, LLC

Passaje, LLC’s mission is to help families heal from substance use disorder. I believe addiction is a family disease, thus everyone in the family also needs help and support aside from having the addicted person seek treatment. When families are not aware of their roles and influence, and/or are having difficulties managing triggering thoughts, it complicates and deters the recovery journey for all involved.  

My wish is to help individuals in the family approach recovery as a team because no one can do it alone. Families and friends need help and support as much as the person struggling with substance use does, especially given the fact that tough love is not always effective. There’s a fine line between enabling and effective support. Family recovery is vital.

Contact me to ask questions or find out more about Passaje, LLC. You can also schedule a free mini-consultation to learn more.

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