Holding space for feelings, especially in recovery, may seem like a tall order on some days and a non-issue on others. This inability to maintain presence with what’s coming up can trigger you to want to use alcohol, drugs, and other substances or engage in other harmful behaviors. I’m here to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with experiencing triggers, no matter how far along you are in your recovery journey. Although cravings can whisk you out of the present moment and into the desperate, hellish realm of grasping and dissatisfaction with what simply is, the state of being triggered is not a sign of weakness or an indication of the quality of your recovery as it can seemingly arise out of nowhere and is, quite frankly, a reminder that you are a human, one who has the courage to be on this radical path of sobriety. The work is learning how to anticipate triggers, befriend them, and know that you don’t have to handle them on your own. It’s important to pay attention to triggers that aren’t directly related to alcohol and drugs, too. If you’re being called to use other substances or harmful behaviors and coping mechanisms, the following information is applicable as well.
What Is A Trigger?
A trigger is an internal or external stimulus that can cause you to want to go back to an old behavior, such as abusing alcohol or drugs. That triggers come with no formula can be frustrating, especially if you feel like you’re in a good place in your recovery, but it’s helpful to begin to categorize the two main types of triggers–internal ones that originate from within one’s self and those that are brought on by external circumstances.
Internal triggers are ones set off within yourself, oftentimes by a fleeting thought or emotion (whether pleasant or unpleasant). Examples include old pains or sorrows arising or present-moment feelings such as tiredness, loneliness, sadness, anger, or tenseness. One common recovery acronym to spotcheck your wellbeing is asking yourself if you’re in a state of HALTS: hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or serious. Feeling too much of any of these conditions is a sign that you might be on edge and in a precarious condition that isn’t meeting your basic needs. When you get into the habit of honestly and regularly checking in with your emotional states, it is easier to spotcheck any discrepancies or warning signs of any upcoming triggers.
External stimuli, or “exposure triggers,” such as people, places, and things, can be a more obvious kind of trigger for you to want to use substances. They may be directly related to your substance use, substance use-adjacent, or not related to using at all but somehow bring up the desire to use. These triggers are easier to plan for being around in many cases, such as being around family and certain friends or in/near old using spots. The common adage “your family knows how to push your buttons because they installed them,” holds weight especially when it comes to triggers. The buttons can be metaphors for stored, repressed memories or resentments that might not have been dealt with, or dealt with to a tiny extent that may not have been enough. In traditional addiction-recovery programs, one is taught not to focus on topics of the past, such as childhood trauma or family dysfunction, however trauma recovery encourages you to resurrect the past so that working and healing through them can take the charge out of those triggers and empower you to no longer feel helpless around them. It is ultimately up to you as to how ready you are to work through past traumas, but know that it will enhance your current addiction-recovery program if and when you are ready.
I like to think of triggers as signposts towards an unmet need within me. Some days I can be at a party where the people around me are using and it won’t bother me, but on other days when I’m feeling emotionally vulnerable, the best self-care practice would be to go home and check in with what it is that I need. That need can vary widely, ranging from requiring more sleep or rest to the need to be seen or heard at home, work, or at school. The latter requires the need to practice putting forth boundaries, which creates an environment of emotional safety in the body that makes it less likely for you to be triggered.
Expecting and planning for triggers is a smart course of action, especially if you know you are heading into a particularly risky situation.
Define Your Support Network
One of the biggest shifts for me in recovery was learning to let a community of people into my healing journey. I learned I couldn’t get sober alone, let alone stay sober alone. When it comes to knowing who to reach out to when you’re triggered, it’s important to also know the ways in which these individuals might be available. Some friends may only be available until a certain time in the day or only by text, while others may prefer in-person interactions. Are there mentors/sponsors or specific friends you’d have no qualms reaching out to? If you were previously in an outpatient program, sober living house, or rehabilitation center, do you have trustworthy contacts–whether staff or counselors–who you would feel comfortable communicating with? In the case that you can’t get a hold of a person in real life, what supplemental recovery materials could you have on hand to soothe your nerves? This could look like recovery-related literature, podcasts, YouTube videos, or whatever media speaks to you.
One helpful suggestion I received in recovery was to make a list of all the people, places, and things I found triggering, no matter how insignificant or silly they sounded. Having a tangible list can take a little bit of the charge away from these things, especially when you share the list with others, which may, in turn, be helpful to them.
Prioritize Pleasure and Hobbies
One important question to ask yourself when feeling even the slightest trigger to use is What is the perceived pleasure I am expecting from this drink/drug? Is it to experience a greater sense of euphoria, calmness, or a little bit of both? Of course the answers can be endless. How can you go about having these experiences in healthier, alternative ways? A balanced life in recovery includes prioritizing pleasure–whether that comes in the form of solo or social activities. What do you truly enjoy doing that doesn’t require you to be in a state of consciousness other than the one you’re in? Can you go as you are, unapologetically for this activity or these friends?
Remember, every time you do not pick up a drink or drug, you are forming new grooves, or neural pathways in the brain that will make it easier to not pick up the next time, also known as “sober references.” The neuroplasticity of the brain and its ability to heal is incredibly promising when it comes to addiction recovery. The temporary discomfort is well-worth the sense of accomplishment that comes when the urge to use has passed.
If you’re feeling triggered and alone, it can be a really scary feeling but know that you are never truly alone. In an ideal situation, suggestions like painting or going for a walk would work wonders, however, those are easier doled out than done. With the wonders of technology–whether through text messages, voice memos, voicemail messages, or social media–you can reach out to someone trustworthy and let them in on your trigger. “Bookending,” or letting someone else in on an action you would (not) like to take is a courageous step in terms of accountability and using the power of community to let others in on your process. You can bookend before and after the action instead of relying on your willpower to bulldoze through whatever it is you are feeling trepidation around.
Journaling–whether through writing or creating video blogs (“vlogs”) on my phone–has been an important tool in my recovery to parse out what I’m feeling. A helpful tool when triggered to use is playing the tape forward, or anticipating what would happen if you did use, in increments of the next few hours to the next few days, weeks, and months. If sufficient time has passed since the trigger, it’s also helpful to “play the tape backwards” and use the trigger as a trailhead for what feeling states, emotions, events, and ideas built up to the trigger. One way to be of service when it comes to triggers is also by sharing your tape with a trusted friend to see if they can spot any other signs you may have missed.
At A Social Gathering
If you’re feeling triggered at a social gathering, remember to prioritize yourself first by attending to what is coming up for you. By doing this, you’re exercising a personal boundary around your triggered state, and how you go about this can vary. If you’re in the middle of a conversation, politely excuse yourself to take a break either by stepping outside or heading to the restroom–anything to get some “alone time” with the trigger and the feelings coming up around the trigger. If you feel like your emotional safety is at risk, know that you always have a choice as to whether to leave the immediate situation. It may not be easy or come without a strong pang of guilt, but taking care of the trigger in the moment will ensure that it does not build up to such an extent that pausing may not seem like an option later on.
Examining The Trigger
It’s important to remember that although a craving is an emotional and mental experience, there is a physiological, somatic component as well. What does a trigger feel like in your body? Can you isolate the feeling to a particular part of your body? Is your heart racing when you entertain the idea of using? Is there a sense of tightening in your chest? When you’re in a craving mindset, dopamine is released in the brain and your brain expects a reward; if you bypass this craving, you may feel grumpy or irritable after, so aftercare is important here.
In active addiction, you may have felt disembodied or dissociated from your experiences, and for some, these feelings of disconnection to one’s self may continue in sobriety, though to a lesser degree. When you pay attention to the physical sensations in your body, you may realize that a trigger is more than an intellectual concept and one that requires more than just mental work to handle. It takes tremendous courage to find the willingness to get sober again after a slip or relapse. Sometimes triggers can be so overpowering and despite your intention to use all the tools at your disposal and enlist all the help you can, you may find yourself picking up regardless. All your feelings about coming back to recovery are valid; know that others have been where you are and your slip doesn’t have to mean anything about you other than the fact that is was a slip. Recovery is not a linear process; it may be helpful to think of your recovery as an onion, rather than a ladder. Linearity, when it comes to healing, is a construct that simply doesn’t make sense. The concept of returning to “square one” is false; although you may go back to an old behavior or substance, you are never the same person as you were when you used it last.
Though we can’t avoid triggers, we can change the way we deal with them. Every trigger is a learning opportunity to strengthen your growth and practices for staying on this path of recovery. It’s helpful for me to remind myself that things happen for me, not to me, and to truly believe this requires reframing perspective on my circumstances. In hindsight, all my slips and relapses made sense and I needed every single one of them to get to this point in my recovery, nearly six years later. Though your mental bandwidth in recovery may feel challenged with the state of being triggered, know that each all of them are signaling you to something in you that needs a little more love, attention, and space.
Marina R. for Avenues NYC