Understanding Triggers

As defined by Fay Dennis in her research, triggers are defined as anything that contributes to the onset of cravings for a substance. These can be anything from places, memories, people, situations, spaces, or physical objects. Triggers have been cited as the most pervasive facet of substance use disorders (SUDs). Research has found triggers to be the focal point in both neurological and psychological understandings of addiction, as outlined in Dennis’ work. Interestingly, she notes that the concept of triggers can be credited to the work of Ivan Pavlov and his famous experiment Pavlov’s Dogs, within the concept of classical conditioning. In this case, there is a connection that is learned over time, meaning that when a trigger is experienced, a physical need for a substance is manifested. Being able to understand what triggers are and how to deal with them is pertinent to being able to overcome substance use issues. Learning to recognize triggers and how to handle them can lead to the ability to re-train the brain to reform connections between triggers and physiological and psychological need for substances, which is the ultimate goal, changing your daily life and outlook in order to better handle life and life’s situations.

How to Recognize Coming into Contact with a Trigger

If you are asked what your triggers are, more than likely they were brought about through difficulties or traumas during childhood development. Margaret Paul, PhD., noted that from her work, she found that many issues occur during childhood that were not able to be dealt with at that point, meaning that they are left unresolved and more likely to manifest themselves in adulthood. Triggers can often be brought to life out of feelings such as shame, anxiety, guilt, and depression. The reason that these feelings are prevalent is that they were experienced within childhood and adolescence, however, they were not effectively managed, so they remain strong but hidden within the subconscious until they are brought to life by a trigger. While there may be many triggers such a place where something bad happened, a color of an outfit, something not working right, or an experience such as riding in the car; you name it, everyone’s triggers look different, but some of them are the same. The triggers that tend to be the most prevalent are found in the form of other people.

Dr. Paul outlined these most common triggers that tend to have a negative impact on any given individual:

Someone either inadvertently or blatantly ignores you.

Having someone either threaten to leave you or leave you (most common in relationships).
Getting a look from someone that comes off as rude or judgmental.

Being around someone who comes off as either controlling or too needy (whether emotionally or sexually).
Not feeling as though someone is happy to see you or feeling as though someone doesn’t have enough time or makes enough time for you.

Someone placing blame on you for something happening or going wrong, whether it is with them personally or within a situation.

Having feelings of being helpless in certain situations.

When you sit down and really soul-search and figure out what it is that bothers you on a deep level, you may find that your triggers fit well within this list. If your trigger is not other people, then it may be helpful to have someone to help you work through things, such as a therapist, who can help you to explore and open up your mind to further find possibilities as to what is troublesome for you.

How to Avoid or Handle Triggers

Once you’ve been able to identify your triggers, no matter what they are or how many of them you may have, the next important step is to find ways to either avoid them altogether or find coping mechanisms to help you handle them when they arise. Working with other people who have gone through similar experiences may be helpful to find ways of handling triggers that you may not have previously thought of. Using support groups, sponsors, or therapists to talk to when you feel as though you’ve experienced a trigger can be a great tool as well. If there are certain people in your past that have been a trigger for quite some time, having a conversation with them and working towards forgiveness can release the hold that they seem to have over you and how you feel. If you want to take this step with a trusted friend by your side, having someone physically present with you may make these interactions easier. Additionally, if you find that there is no positive resolution that is possible between you and the person, then you may consider cutting ties with that person and filling your circle with those people who are positive influences. If your triggers are not other people, then you can utilize these methods as well, just apply them to objects or places. Sometimes, it may be necessary to completely change your environment in order to grow, but that is a decision that is completely up to you and what will help you to be the most successful.

Experiencing substance use issues can be harder to overcome when you’re unaware of your triggers and how to handle them. When the time comes that you decide that you are ready to leave substance use behind and move on to better things is the perfect time to do so. You are probably aware that your whole life will change, but in many cases, change is for the better. Despite having reservations and fears about what the future will look like for yourself, know that it can only get better from here. For more information, call us at (805)719-7954.

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