In the recovery community, a “trigger” usually refers to a place, a person, or a type of experience that activates cravings for drugs or alcohol in the brain. Paraphernalia, visual cues, or smells, like the odor of alcohol or marijuana, can evoke memories of past substance use in the same way that the sweet sugary smell outside a bakery stimulates the desire for a pastry. Environmental triggers are particularly dangerous if the addicted individual is having a hard time emotionally. They may be mentally primed to react to triggers and engage with cravings.
In many cases, self-medicating intolerable emotional pain is the main motivation behind a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, the holiday season is a stressful time for many individuals. It is often full of people and places that may trigger cravings. It can be as simple as going back to a place where one used to drink or be exposed to a family member who pushes your buttons.
In her influential book Unbroken Brain, journalist Maia Szalavitz describes addiction as a “coping style that becomes maladaptive when the behavior persists despite ongoing negative consequences.” The behavior persists and becomes compulsive because of an “overlearning” malfunction of the brain’s reward cycle which teaches humans what experiences to repeat and which ones to avoid.
“The capacity for such overlearning is a feature of the brain’s motivational systems, which evolved to promote survival and reproduction,” explains Szalavitz. It is behavioral reinforcement: humans are biologically primed to repeat positive experiences but avoid pain and danger. These behaviors are frequently triggered by cues in the environment. That’s why food commercials will send you to the refrigerator.
In treatment, maladaptive coping mechanisms such as using drugs and alcohol are replaced with healthy coping skills. Since it is nearly impossible to avoid environmental triggers altogether, people in recovery are taught to recognize triggers for what they are, what situations are best to avoid, and what to do when cravings emerge.
A few years ago, researchers at the University of Houston used virtual reality scenarios to study how people with addiction react to triggers. To do so, the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab at UH’s Graduate College of Social Work immersed participants in virtual environments based on their previous substance use. The virtual reality environment can be a safe method to learn about personal triggers and how to handle them.
One of the most life-changing ways of coping with triggers and cravings is reaching out. Addiction thrives on isolation; recovery on connection. Use your support network, reach out to a sponsor or other person you can trust to help. Who will you call to support your sobriety in times of need?
If you know what circumstances trigger you, you can prepare for them or avoid those situations in the first place. If a holiday event is likely to cause stress, anxiety, fear, or anger, it may be better not to go—especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Your recovery is much more important than attending an event that could compromise it.
If you, a family member, or a friend are struggling with addiction and/or mental health issues, Recovery Ways wants to help. We are dually licensed to treat mental health disorders and addiction. Don’t delay seeking treatment because of the holidays. Our admissions coordinators can recommend a plan of action, suggest an interventionist, or speak with your loved one. For more information, please call us at (888) 988-5217.