Recognizing Triggers

An easy way to look at triggers is to think of them as synonymous with temptation. While you may not always be able to control whether you experience a trigger or a tempting thought, you do have power over whether you succumb to them. In other words, just because you’re tempted to do something you know is bad for your sobriety doesn’t mean you’ll blindly follow through on the urge. Learning to trust your ability to say no and surrounding yourself with people and situations that support you help to build the “muscle” of sobriety.

Triggers can include people, places and things; in general, anything that you associate with substance abuse and/or the compulsive behavior can be a trigger. This can include seeing or hearing something on TV about drinking or gambling; the sound of ice cubes hitting a glass as a family member gets ready to pour a refreshing soda; the smell of pot at a public venue; being around too many people, or being alone; not taking your medication and many, many more sights, smells, sounds, tastes, words, music — the list of possible triggers can seem endless sometimes. Many self-help support groups use the acronym “H.A.L.T.” to describe certain triggers. The letters stand for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired; for many, these are common situations that make it more likely you’ll use or drink.

What serves as a trigger for you may be completely different for someone else. However, these are some common triggers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  • The anniversary dates of losses or trauma
  • Frightening news events
  • Too much to do; feeling overwhelmed
  • Family friction
  • The end of a relationship
  • Spending too much time alone
  • Being judged, criticized, teased or put down
  • Financial problems; getting a big bill
  • Physical illness
  • Sexual harassment
  • Being yelled at
  • Aggressive-sounding noises or exposure to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • Being around someone who has treated you badly
  • Certain smells, tastes or noises that remind you of your drug of choice

Once you’ve learned to identify your triggers, you can take the proper steps to deal with them effectively. For some, it helps to keep a list of coping techniques that have worked in the past — such as going for a run, calling a close friend or your sponsor, or “urge surfing”(imagine yourself as a surfer who will ride the urge, staying on top of it until it crests, breaks and turns into less powerful, foamy surf) — along with how you felt after afterward. For example, remembering the good feeling of exhaustion and inner quiet after a long run, or the sense of pride and power you felt after riding out the urge. It’s also important to keep a list of people you can call if triggers become overwhelming. That human connection in the moment may be enough to give you the support and encouragement you need to get through without giving in to the trigger.

And remember to share what you’ve learned with others in self-help support groups or group therapy. There’s great collective wisdom in the rooms of recovery and many opportunities to provide and receive suggestions for excellent coping techniques for triggers.

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