The Triggering Effect

Triggers - memories, behaviors, thoughts, situations that jeopardize recovery.

Posted Sep 22, 2009

Triggers are specific memories, behaviors, thoughts and situations that jeopardize recovery - signals you are entering a stage that brings you closer to a relapse. The process is much like riding a roller coaster that loops over itself. Once the roller coaster car gets to a certain spot in the track, a threshold is met, there is no turning back, and it starts the downward loop - a relapse.

Just as gravity has a motivating effect on a roller coaster, brain chemistry has a similar effect motivating triggers. When people use substances or engage in escape behaviors, the brain releases neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine that trigger the brain's pleasure/reward center; or it may release serotonin which lessens anxiety and depression. With repetition of the drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behavior, the brain's reward center overrides the cognitive, rational thinking part of itself. Addiction hijacks the brain. The reward/pleasure center holds captive the thinking center. Science also indicates that stress alters the way we think.

It is very likely you have heard your husband, wife, partner, mother, father, boss, a friend, your attorney or even a judge say, "What were you thinking?" The answer is: you weren't thinking.

The science of addiction indicates that the inability to recognize the impact of your behavior, the willingness to risk what is significant in your life, and in this case, the quick lapse into old behaviors in spite of good intentions appear to be connected to brain chemistry.

The good news is that the brain has plasticity. That means, in treatment and recovery practices, you can learn skills to calm the brain's emotional responses and reactivity area. You can learn to avoid triggers that activate the emotional area, and you can learn to enhance the decision-making area so you can rationally think through decisions, rather than respond impulsively and from such a strong emotional basis. But it takes time for the brain to be rewired, and it gets rewired with the repetition of new skills and new ways of thinking, hence, I strongly urge ongoing involvement in aftercare and other support systems.

Willpower alone is not a defense against relapse. Recovery is achieved, maintained and enjoyed through a series of actions. Learn to identify your triggers and, with each, identify a plan that anticipates and deescalates the power of the trigger. With that, your reward is another day of sobriety with endless possibilities.

In the next few weeks I'll be discussing more about The Triggering Effect and five common triggers: Romanticizing the Behaviors, Resentments, Feelings, Loss, and Slippery People, Places and Things.