What Is A Trigger?
To be triggered is to experience an emotional reaction to something based off of a previous negative experience. Triggers can be people, scents, places, harmful substances, or anything else that serves as reminders for intense or distracting emotions. Oftentimes, triggers are reminders that put people in a mental and emotional place of distress, pain, anger, frustration, and other strong emotions. In the case of addiction and recovery, triggers are often some sort of internal or external stimulus that causes the former addict to desire to use drugs or alcohol again.
Triggers are easily identifiable by the way someone reacts to something. For instance, triggers may occur when someone remembers an event, or when an uncomfortable experience happens. The experience may cause someone to lash out, breakdown, or cope in unhealthy ways. As a result, individuals with unchecked triggers can cope in harmful ways, foster unhealthy relationships, and endure much suffering.
What Are Triggers?
One of the biggest obstacles people face when they are suffering from a substance use disorder are triggers that cause relapses. Dr. Ashish Bhatt, MD explains how to recognize these triggers and avoid relapse.View All Videos
Triggered: External And Internal Triggers
Triggers can be broken down into 2 categories: internal and external. Both can strongly impact the individual feeling the result of the trigger. External and internal triggers include:
- Depression and anxiety
- A loss of control
- Heartbreak, job loss or grief
- Stress or fear
- Feeling unsafe, feeling misunderstood
- Specific places (home, streets, cities, countries)
- Trauma/PTSD and abuse
- Feeling judged, feeling attacked, feeling invalidated
There are other triggers such as sights, smells, conflict, aggression, news stories, books, and memories which can cause disruption in our lives.
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Trigger Management: Healthy Coping Skills
There are healthy ways to cope with difficult triggers, and those suffering can feel reassured they don’t have to give triggers power. One of the most important steps to identifying triggers and managing them in healthy ways is to be self-aware. Being self-aware allows for individuals to understand the driving force behind their behavior, or the trigger before and after they react. Simple recommended methods to effectively manage triggers include:
- Therapy or counseling
- Meditation or mindfulness
- Spending time with positive people
- Drinking water or tea for relaxation/hydration
- Joining a support group
- Eating nutritional meals
- Using positive distractions
- Reframing negative attitudes or perceptions
Practices like mindfulness allow individuals to focus on right now, placing their mindset in the present moment. This encourages detaching from painful or distressing experiences and can reduce stress. Healthy ways of managing triggers allows individuals to thrive without turning to damaging coping mechanisms that can harm them or others.
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Trigger Management: Unhealthy Coping Skills
Unhealthy coping methods can worsen triggers that can manifest as stress, anxiety, depression. In many cases, individuals who have not found healthy coping mechanisms can indulge in toxic behaviors or develop toxic habits. Untreated triggers can create distracting and disempowering habits that can heavily affect individuals and loved ones. Some examples of unhealthy trigger management include but are not limited to:
- Misdirected anger
- Emotional, psychological, sexual, financial or mental abuse
- Making excuses for harmful behavior
- Developing poor behavioral compulsions
- Abusing harmful substances
- Binge eating or drinking
- Bottling it up
- Exploding with anger or rage
- Befriending people who abuse or sell drugs or alcohol
What Causes Triggers?
Triggers can either be positive or negative, although negative triggers can have the most damaging effects. There are common triggers that can lead to frustration, broken relationships, depression, isolation, and in some cases, suicide. Triggers can become a problem if they are frequent, and if one is having difficulty coping because of them. For example, a child who grew up in an abusive household may feel anxious when people argue or fight. Depending on his or her involvement in family conflict, he or she may feel afraid, lash out as a defense mechanism, or distance him or herself from conflict.
Emotions like anger, guilt, irritability, and low self-esteem can surface when individuals are triggered, spiraling into various behaviors and compulsions. Unfortunately, the nature of emotional or mental triggers can run very deep and can be traumatizing. Some can push individuals to adopt unhealthy ways of coping, such as self-harm, harm to others, and substance abuse.
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Triggers can cause individuals to develop a “flight or fight response.” Since triggers can cause great distress and anxiety, it is often suggested for those struggling to get help.
Individuals with problematic triggers may not know the cause and can benefit from therapy. Therapy or treatment for distressing triggers can reduce the likelihood of one developing troubling compulsions and chemical use disorders. Therapists in rehab facilities can offer individuals tools and ideas that can be helpful while battling troubling emotions and compulsions. Individuals can learn new and healthy coping mechanisms. Additionally, individuals who suffer chemical use disorders can find help to decrease the risk of a relapse. Cognitive behavioral therapy to help individuals control their impulses, which can lower compulsions. Peer groups offer support and empathy while someone recovers.
Contact a treatment provider today to find your way to peace and sobriety.
Ashish Bhatt, MD, MRO
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Learn about Dr. Ashish Bhatt
Dr. Bhatt has been Addiction Center's Medical Content Director for more than three years, providing his expertise to ensure quality and accuracy.
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Expert in adult and child psychiatry
Over 20 years of professional experience