A friend of ours recently suffered a relapse after a fair amount of time in sobriety. This man, who very much enjoyed his life in sobriety, got the idea to drink one day. He wasn’t thinking about the impending consequences, or whether or not he could control it. In fact, he wasn’t thinking at all. After 2-4 weeks of returning to his old way of life, he got drunk at a movie and was arrested for public intoxication. He is now banned from the mall for three years. The worst part? He doesn’t even remember the triggers that caused him to take that first drink.

Even if he did, it wouldn’t make much of a difference to the family who spent the night worried for his safety while he was sitting in the drunk tank. Identifying his triggers today would not expunge his public record, nor would it prevent him from having to pick up a new chip at his next AA meeting. Had he identified his triggers before his relapse, however, then perhaps the whole situation might have been avoided. We must learn our triggers early in recovery if we wish to remain sober.

Below, we’ll talk a bit about what triggers are and how they work. We’ll also discuss the process of identifying them, and whether or not there is a way to overcome them in time. There are differing views on this last concern, and we should never let our defenses down completely. But understanding our triggers may be central in our struggle to remain sober. We should therefore dedicate much time to this effort if we value ourselves and our sobriety. Otherwise, we may find ourselves back at square one, just like the man referenced above.

How Do Triggers Work?

Triggers set off chain reactions in our brains that lead us down a pathway of negative thinking. (Ollyy/Shutterstock)
Triggers set off chain reactions in our brains that lead us down a pathway of negative thinking. (Ollyy/Shutterstock)

We all have triggers, even if they do not pertain to alcoholism or addiction. When we become angry because someone tells an insensitive joke, we can identify a trigger. When someone becomes jealous every time a paramour references a friend of the opposite sex, that person gives in to one of their triggers. And when we shame ourselves every time someone looks at us in a judgmental way, we can say that fear of judgment triggers us. Triggers work by eliciting an emotional response from us. In the case of addicts and alcoholics, this emotional disturbance is often followed by substance abuse.

Triggers, are stimuli which evoke such disturbance instantaneously. One second, everything seems to be just fine. The next, we find ourselves thinking about drugs or alcohol because of a single moment. This moment does not have to be negative. We can be triggered by certain forms of celebration, or even by mundane environmental stimuli that remind us of our former habits. In these cases, emotional disturbance may not be the only thing at play.

Triggers operate on mental and emotional associations that we reinforce over time. Every time we engage in substance abuse in a certain environment or to suppress a specific emotion, we reinforce the belief that substance abuse is the proper response to such situations. As a result, it becomes more and more difficult to encounter these triggers without wanting to drink or abuse drugs. Because after reinforcing these associations for so long, substance abuse feels like the most natural response. In other words, our minds become so twisted that refraining from substance abuse feels unnatural to us. Encountering our triggers without using leaves us feeling restless, irritable and discontent.

Even when we are not encountering our triggers, we often do things to strengthen them. Every time we recall their memory in vivid detail, we relive the experiences that drove us to use. When we tell war stories, embellishing tales of our use in order to make ourselves sound cool or radical, we strengthen our triggers. We give them power over us, allowing them to dictate our behaviors. We must take this power back, no longer allowing our addiction to rule our lives. In order to do that, however, we must first identify the triggers which have caused us so much grief.

Identifying Our Triggers

There are numerous feelings and situations that may cause us to engage in unhealthy thinking. (design36/Shutterstock)
There are numerous feelings and situations that may cause us to engage in unhealthy thinking. (design36/Shutterstock)

Environmental triggers will likely be the easiest to identify. If we usually drink or do drugs in a certain setting or with certain people, we can make a good start. We may even feel a trigger going off at a certain time of day if our substance abuse usually followed a routine schedule. Perhaps we often drink in certain situations, such as when we are on a plane or waiting at the airport. If there is a situation during which we always engage in substance abuse, it will be difficult to encounter this situation without feeling the urge.

The problem with environmental triggers is that they are not always avoidable. We can avoid some of them, such as pubs or drug dealers’ houses, quite easily. But we can’t avoid times of day and we cannot avoid certain situations. For instance, we may need to fly for work or family purposes. If we are accustomed to drinking when we travel, this will prove difficult for us. When we know we are about to encounter an environmental trigger, we must prepare ourselves. We must have numbers of people in our support network to whom we can reach out if things get dicey. We can’t just white-knuckle it alone.

Emotional triggers will be harder to figure out. We may need to take extensive inventory on the situations in which we have gotten drunk or high to suppress our emotions. Identify times that you remember using to quell an emotional disturbance. Were you feeling lonely at the time? Did you feel angry or depressed? Perhaps you were beating yourself up over your looks, or some other aspect of yourself that you didn’t like. The man we mentioned in the intro was purging his lunch right before he lost his memory. If he hadn’t emptied his stomach of all contents but alcohol, he might not have blacked out and wound up in jail. This provides us with one extreme example of the manner in which low self-esteem may act as a trigger.

You may not discover all of your emotional triggers immediately. This applies to your environmental triggers as well. Throughout your recovery, you will need to stay alert. Whenever you feel the urge to use, pay attention to your feelings. Pay attention to your surroundings as well. If you have truly hit rock bottom, then the urge to use again is far from natural. Something either in your head or in your surroundings is triggering an association with substance abuse. Instead of giving in, try to figure out what’s causing your cravings. Then you can try to find ways of either avoiding these triggers or overcoming them so that they no longer hurt you.

Can We Overcome Them?

We must overcome our triggers through spiritual growth. (Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)
We must overcome our triggers through spiritual growth. (Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)

There is an interesting passage in Chapter 7 of Alcoholics Anonymous regarding the nature of triggers. It is as follows:

“Assuming we are spiritually fit, we can do all sorts of things alcoholics are not supposed to do. People have said we must not go where liquor is served; we must not have it in our homes; we must shun friends who drink; we must avoid moving pictures which show drinking scenes; we must not go into bars; our friends must hide their bottles if we go to their houses; we mustn’t think or be reminded about alcohol at all. Our experience shows that this is not necessarily so.”

The passage continues to say that those who cannot do these things are those who still suffer from spiritual illness. They still possess the mind of an alcoholic. Once we have gone through the Twelve Steps, we should no longer find ourselves in such a position. That does not mean our triggers do not matter. What it means is simply that they no longer maintain such a strong foothold on us. They do not dictate our behaviors as strongly as they once did.

In other words, the primary step to overcoming our triggers is to grow in such a way that they do not hold as much sway over us. Many will learn to do this in our programs, but they must continue their efforts while assimilating back into the world. Once we have looked back into our past and begun to right the ship, we must stop reliving our former torment. The past is behind us, and the future is a dream. But in the present, we can do the right thing. In the present, we can remain alert and refuse to let our triggers control us. If we have truly worked to recognize them, this will be much easier. If we have not, then we risk encountering our triggers while our defenses are down. Rarely does this go very well.

A Matter Of Survival

Triggers are dangerous, but they are not insurmountable. We must maintain the presence of mind to call a sponsor or someone in our support network. When we try to face our triggers in isolation, we write a recipe for failure. Spiritual growth is the only acceptable formula for success. It’s time for us to focus on recovery by facing our addictions one day at a time. If we don’t start learning now, our triggers may do us in before long. Learning to identify our triggers is about more than relapse prevention—it is a matter of survival.

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