If you’re a recovering sex addict, you know that sexual triggers are unavoidable, and you can be triggered into sexual thinking pretty much anytime, anywhere. Unwanted sexual thoughts can crop up thanks to a billboard seen on your way to work, a perky waitress (or waiter), a parent who’s showing just a little too much skin at your kid’s soccer match, a new actor or actress on your favorite TV show, etc. In other words, sexual triggers are endlessly variable and constantly arising, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop this. This, of course, means that sexualized fantasies and desires are inevitable, no matter how much you’d like them to go away and stay away.
The good news is that you don’t have to act on these thoughts. In fact, this is what sexual recovery is all about — being triggered toward your addiction but responding with a healthy, nonsexual action instead of acting out as you did in the past. Essentially, as a recovering sex addict you must learn to “do something else” when you are triggered toward problem sexual behaviors. Happily, there is an endless supply of healthy responses from which to choose. The trick is having them at the ready when needed. Knowing this, it is wise for recovering sex addicts to stock their “sexual sobriety toolkit” in advance. A few such tools will be listed in the outer boundary of your sexual sobriety plan. Other healthy coping mechanisms that you will likely find useful include the following:
- The Three-Second Rule: As mentioned above, recovering sex addicts are not in control of their thoughts. They can, however, control how long they indulge those thoughts. For instance, after recognizing a triggering thought, addicts can allow themselves no more than three seconds before they turn away from it and focus on something else. An easy way to rid yourself of a triggering thought is to simply “turn it over” to a higher power, asking for the thought to be removed. This tactic even works for addicts who struggle with the idea of God/higher power, primarily because the straightforward act of doing something (anything at all) other than indulging the triggering thought will break its power. Sometimes the three-second rule only works for a few moments, with another unwanted trigger cropping up almost immediately. In such cases, the three-second rule can be used repeatedly. This is actually a good thing, as the more often the three-second rule is used, the more effective it becomes.
- Bookending: Sometimes triggers are unexpected, but a lot of the time they are not. For instance, if you know will be attending a work or social event and one of your old acting-out partners will be there, you can “bookend” the event with phone calls to a supportive friend in recovery. In the “before” call, you commit to sobriety. You might even discuss plans for avoiding relapse. In the “after” call, you discuss what happened, the feelings you experienced, and what you might need to do differently in the future.
- HALT: HALT is an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It is important for recovering sex addicts to do the occasional self-check to see if any of these apply, as any one of them can leave an addict more vulnerable than normal to relapse. When triggered, sex addicts must learn to ask: When is the last time I ate? Did I get enough sleep last night? Is there some conflict in my life that I need to resolve? Would a few minutes spent talking with someone who understands me help me feel better? More often than not, a catnap, a candy bar, or a five-minute phone conversation will greatly diminish the desire to act out.
- Gratitude: Many recovering sex addicts have become so overwhelmed by their addiction that they lose sight of what is right and good in their world. As such, they get down on themselves and on life in general, which causes a desire to “numb out” with sex. One of the best ways to combat this stinking thinking is by writing a 10-item gratitude list. To a certain extent, this works like the three-second rule; the addict circumvents his or her addictive thoughts by thinking about and/or doing something else. On a deeper level, gratitude promotes happiness and emotional well-being. Grateful people tend to focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses, and they are in general more hopeful, less stressed, less likely to wallow in shame, and more likely to recover from an addiction.
Obviously, these four tools do not comprise a complete toolkit. Twelve-step meetings, written 12-step work, journaling, sponsorship (both giving and receiving), making recovery-related phone calls, socializing, reading recovery literature, prayer, meditation, exercise, healthy hobbies and time spent with family and friends are just a few of the other tools that recovering sex addicts can turn to when triggered. Some tools work better than others for certain addicts, and there is nothing wrong with that. The idea is for each recovering sex addict to fully stock his or her personalized toolbox, and then to pick and choose what works best for him/her in each particular circumstance.