A “trigger” is any kind of stimulus that prompts a behavioral response in a person. While a trigger does not technically refer exclusively to unwanted or adverse responses, it is commonly used to refer to negative experiences. For individuals struggling with substance use disorders, a “trigger” refers to a specific event or kind of event that stimulates their desire to use a substance. Triggers can be experiences, thoughts, feelings, and memories. Some common examples of triggers are stressful interpersonal interactions, difficult emotions, anger, and rumination.

Not All Triggers are Negative

Not all triggers are necessarily loaded with negative emotional weight. Sometimes, familiar places, pairings, activities, and even positive experiences can be triggers by association. A trigger can be as simple as a certain environmental cue, such as a smell or familiar sight. A good example of this is the difficulty many former smokers continue to have when presented with an alcoholic beverage, as many people who smoked also drank simultaneously and find that alcohol continues to elicit cravings for cigarettes. While one person might be triggered to use a substance after running into an ex-spouse in the grocery store and feeling upset, another person might experience a fun party as a trigger because they previously used in similar settings. Subsequently, they too may experience a strong association between certain settings or kinds of experiences and substance use.

Identify & Cope

Learning to identify and cope with triggers is an important part of substance use recovery. Until we are aware of our triggers, we will continue to compulsively use substances to avoid really experiencing these situations, or to temporarily soothe our unwanted feelings. The reality is that using substances in this capacity is a short-term escape that not only doesn’t really help us with “the problem,” it also comes with a host of additional negative consequences that often compound the original distress.  When you develop an awareness of your personal triggers, you are empowered to make different, deliberate behavioral choices. You can learn to respond mindfully and choose your action, instead of reacting automatically and defaulting to unwanted behavior like using a substance.

Easy To Identify

Some triggers are easier for us to identify than others. Certain triggers may be obvious to you or the people close to you. Others might surprise you. You might discover that what you thought was a trigger was in fact a superficial explanation for what really upsets you about certain situations, feelings, or memories.

External & Internal Triggers

For external, environmental triggers, minimizing exposure is helpful. For example, individuals with alcohol use disorders frequently find that being in a bar environment even if there are non-alcoholic beverages available, or hanging out with old drinking buddies, are simply too triggering. They find they are best served by socializing in other environments and with other people that do not cue them to want to drink. For internal triggers—thoughts, feelings, memories—it’s important to learn new, healthy ways of coping.  Substance use professionals are adept at helping individuals identify their triggers and develop new ways and patterns of managing these experiences that address the feelings or situation in healthy, constructive ways.

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