Andrea is walking through the mall when she hears a familiar sound playing through the speakers. She can’t quite make it out at first, but she notices a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She stops in her tracks and listens, finally making out the melody. It hits her – this was the song she and one of her previous affair partners had called “their song.” Flooded with emotions of fear, anxiety, longing, and dread, she turns on her heel and exits the mall at close to a sprint.
What Andrea experienced in that moment is what therapists who specialize in addiction treatment call a “trigger.” Often sensory memories, such as the taste of a delicious meal, the smell of perfume, or seeing a beautiful view can remind you of fond memories. However, for addicts, triggers like these can bring back thoughts, memories, or feelings that have to do with the addiction. These triggers often cause an immediate, visceral response in the addict. This response can be accompanied by reminders of the drug of choice. Triggers become particularly impactful when the addict is facing stress.
If you often find yourself in a spot where you’re feeling triggered, what can you do about it?
While the ultimate goal of recovery from addiction involves identifying triggers and planning for them ahead of time, as well as reducing the effects they have, you may come across a time where you are triggered unexpectedly and wondering how to handle the ensuing emotions and memories. Here are some ideas of what to do:
Stop and ask yourself the question: “Do I want to get well?”
Marnie Ferree, in her book No Stones*, references the story in the Bible recorded in John 5 of a crippled man who had been waiting at the healing pool of Bethesda to wash himself in the waters. When Jesus approaches him to heal him, He first asks him this question: Do you want to get well?
Marnie names this as the most important question for recovering addicts, adding, “Your recovery will depend on how you answer this question on a daily basis. Your yes will simplify many of the choices you’ll have to make. Let your vision of sobriety and healing motivate and encourage you."
Questioning yourself in this way is a technique that comes from the theory of motivational interviewing, which has been shown in some studies to change a nicotine addict’s response to the trigger of tobacco. It helps you to connect with the delayed consequences of your actions, rather than just being caught up in the immediate gratification that addictive behavior gives.
Practice quality self-care.
In our driven and self-motivated culture, self-care strategies are very often pushed to the side or forgotten about completely. In fact, lack of self-care can a contributor to addictive behavior, as cravings are often worsened by stress or a desire to escape from the realities of life.
While self-care can include such activities as exercise and journaling, a self-care strategy that is particularly potent for fighting back against addiction is gratitude. Practicing gratitude helps to slow the deprivation mentality that accompanies addiction, instead replacing it with joy in response to the good things present in your life.
If you have struggled with addictive behaviors, your brain has been trained to respond to triggers by turning to the addictive behaviors. Part of the reason this connection is so strong is because often, addictive behaviors met what they promised, even if it was only for a moment. Rather than shaming yourself for that tendency, offer yourself grace and remind yourself that these thoughts are normal for people in recovery. Remind yourself that you are re-learning new patterns, and take time to engage in those new patterns right then and there. Accepting the past and making a choice to live differently puts you in a position one step above the addiction, as you reclaim your power and strength over the behaviors.
Engage with your desires.
Often, the underlying cause of addictive behaviors is a desire to fulfill a legitimate need, but the fulfillment is carried out in a way that is destructive. The acronym HALT is often used with addiction: that triggers are more likely to affect you if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Instead of choosing to run to addiction, take some time to slow down, name the desire (even if it’s just for a delicious meal!), and find ways to meet that desire in a healthy way. For sex and love addicts, the underlying desire behind addictive behaviors is often intimacy and connection, which is why relationships with others in 12-Step groups or therapy groups can often provide a healthy way to meet that desire. For Christians, engaging with desire can look like connecting with God in prayer, naming the desires you have, and seeking to trust him with the desires not yet met.
Reach out to your social support.
If you are in recovery, it is important to link yourself up with people who can support you and who know the whole story. While this support network may begin with just your therapist, your therapist will likely encourage you to join a 12-Step group (like Sex Addicts Anonymous) or support group in order to find others with whom you can empathize and receive help. If you notice a trigger, call your sponsor or a trusted friend from your support network to be able to talk you through it or be with you in it. The most effective way to interrupt your addictive cycle is to talk through it with someone.
Take a mindful moment.
Mindfulness helps you to re-center yourself on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in memories of the past or desires for the future. Practicing mindfulness forces you to slow down, pay attention to your emotions, and acknowledge what you’re experiencing. It also helps you to identify how your thoughts and actions are being influenced by those emotions. Take some time to practice this grounding exercise that engages your senses: notice five things you see, four things you hear, three things you can touch, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in the environment around you.
Use affirmations to remind yourself of truth.
As you begin to walk through recovery, you’ll realize how your self-image and negative core beliefs about yourself have influenced your behavior as well as your response to triggering events. Find words that you can repeat to yourself in the moments where you feel weakest that are in direct contrast to the negative self-talk you use in moments where you are triggered. These statements can be something along the lines of “I am strong enough to overcome this” or “I am loved.” Scripture can be used as affirmations as well, with verses such as Philippians 4:13 (“I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” NLT) or Psalm 23:1 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” NLT)
Ultimately, you will not be able to avoid or eliminate triggers altogether in your recovery from addiction. You cannot control the sights, sounds, and smells that are around you on a daily basis. What you can do instead is learn to cope with those triggers and put supports in place so that when you are facing a trigger, you know how to best handle it.
If you’ve been fighting back against triggers toward sex and love addiction for a long time, or if you are realizing you don’t have the support system in place to handle those triggers that come up, I am here to help. At Restored Hope, I offer counseling in Ann Arbor, where I specialize in treating sex and love addiction. I’d love to help you on your journey of recovery to find freedom and healing from addictive behaviors. To hear more about how I can support you, give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to contact me.