Triggers – Just an Excuse to Act Out?

trigger triggers recovery

In a meeting the other day, (a Big Book study which had focused on the classic tale of Jim and the old whiskey-in-milk debacle), the topic of ‘triggers’ came up. An old-timer raised his hand after a few trigger-related shares, and said, “Listen. When I wake up in the morning, I wake up triggered. If I do what I need to do to set myself right first thing, I can safely go anywhere and do anything. Crazy thoughts will creep up from time-to-time, and of course they will. But if I maintain a fit spiritual condition, I’ll be okay. The obsession was removed a long time ago.” I thought about this for awhile. He had a very good point. When I first entered into recovery – a misguided, attention-starved 20-something – I couldn’t walk through the liquor aisle without salivating. Pretty much everything I saw made me think of drinking. Orange juice, Christmas decorations, being alone, being with friends, work, days off… was everything in my life a trigger? Every circumstance, memory, and emotion? Or was I simply a dry alcoholic without a solution?

What is a Trigger?

A trigger is defined as any form of stimuli that initiates the desire to engage in addictive behavior, potentially prompting an individual who is in recovery to ‘slip-up’ and use a chemical substance (or act out in a way) that they have been actively attempting to avoid. For example, a recovering alcoholic may be triggered by the martini that the fancy man at the table next to him at The Olive Garden is casually sipping. A recovering heroin addict may be triggered by watching a diabetic inject himself with insulin. A recovering sex addict may be triggered by a scantily clad woman on the subway. Basically, a trigger is any person, place, thing, or circumstance that causes emotional discomfort or arouses temptation. When an individual first enters into recovery, he or she will likely be triggered by literally everything. The trick is learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions as they arise. If an individual uses a relapse trigger as a justification to return to his or her old ways, it is safe to assume that he or she was just looking for a viable excuse to act out. But compiling a list of personal triggers in early recovery can be helpful, seeing as (before we have worked the steps and reached a point of spiritual enlightenment) we are extremely susceptible to falling back into our old patterns.

Common Relapse Triggers

We are less likely to reach towards old, unhealthy coping mechanisms if we avoid certain situations, and if we begin practicing the employment of new, healthy, and favorable behaviors. Some of the most common relapse triggers include:

  • Residing in a place of self-pity.

You may have heard someone in the rooms say, “Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink.” Wallowing in a bitter morass of self-pity is extremely dangerous territory for any recovering alcoholic – especially someone who is relatively new to the program. If you find yourself stuck in the victim role, do everything you can to change your mindset. Things are not happening TO YOU, they are just happening.

  • Being overly confident.

Most alcoholics suffer from crippling low self-esteem, so building up a healthy amount of self-confidence is certainly a good thing. It is when we get overly confident, and think to ourselves, “This recovery thing is easy, I’ve got this – I won’t relapse,” that we may be in trouble. Feeling good is awesome. But if we believe that all of our problems have been resolved, we are less likely to put forth the required effort. It is important to remember that addiction recovery is a daily reprieve.

Dishonesty is a major part of active addiction. We become used to lying, manipulating, and deceiving our loved ones in order to get our way and continue using. When we enter into recovery, we commit to a life of honesty. It is not likely that after a few months of sobriety we will have the honesty thing down pat – breaking a lifelong pattern takes time! What we can do is try to catch ourselves more quickly, and ‘come clean’ as quickly as we can. Soon, telling the truth will become second nature.

  • Unrealistic expectations for recovery.

We may expect our lives to instantaneously improve as soon as we put down the drink or the drug. We may expect all of our friends and family members to magically forgive us, our professional lives to flourish, and all of our worries to rapidly melt away. In reality, we will have to work hard to rebuild our lives. Putting unrealistic expectations on recovery will cause frustration and disillusionment, and may lead to relapse. The promises will come true – but we need to put forth ample effort in order for them to do so.

  • Isolation.

Avoiding people in early recovery is dangerous, because our brains are still full of crazy ideas. It is normal for individuals in early recovery to combat standard symptoms of depression – it takes a while for the chemical imbalances in our brains to neutralize. If you are isolating more than normal, feeling sad, alone, and hopeless, it may be because your mind is healing itself. Combat these feelings with positive actions. Spend time with people, spend time outdoors, and take care of yourself!

  • Misusing other substances.

We may convince ourselves that taking 5 Benadryl to help us sleep is normal and healthy behavior, or that drinking 7 energy drinks in one afternoon is excusable. But abusing other substances may be a sign of relapse, and should be taken seriously. Drinking one Redbull is not reason for concern – drinking 7 in an hour is slightly disconcerting. Abusing other substances may also trick your brain into craving more, more, more. When the caffeine wears off, you may be left craving something more intense. Better to just leave it all alone, take medications as prescribed (and only when you need them), and stick to good old meeting coffee.

What does the word ‘trigger’ mean to you? Do you think this is a valid part of recovery vocabulary? Please share your thoughts and experiences!