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What are triggers?

In recovery, it is often recommended you avoid your triggers.

What are triggers and why do they matter?

Addiction is a complex issue that affects millions of lives worldwide. While the reasons behind addiction are multifaceted, one crucial element that plays a significant role in maintaining addictive behaviours is the concept of "triggers."

The science behind triggers

Triggers in addiction are like alarm bells for the brain, and can be defined as a stimulus or cue that activates drug/alcohol related memories, thoughts or feelings leading to reward anticipation and craving response. To comprehend this process, it's helpful to think of your brain as a highly sophisticated computer.

  1. Identification of Triggers: Your brain identifies triggers through past experiences. These can be people, places, emotions, or situations associated with your addictive behaviour. For example, if you used to associate stress with smoking a joint or having a drink, then stress becomes a trigger.

  2. Activation of the Reward System: When you encounter a trigger (like stress) it activates the brain's reward system. This system is responsible for releasing a feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine.

  3. Craving and Urges: The release of dopamine creates a pleasurable sensation, which your brain remembers and associates with the trigger. Consequently, encountering the trigger again ignites cravings and urges, compelling you to seek the addictive substance or behaviour. It's like your brain saying, "Remember how good this felt? Let's do it again!"

  4. Action and Reinforcement: To satisfy these cravings, you may engage in the addictive behaviour (having a drink or smoking), which triggers another release of dopamine. This reinforces the connection between the trigger and the addictive behaviour, making it stronger.

  5. Memory and Repetition: Your brain has a remarkable ability to remember things that make you feel good. It stores the memory of the pleasurable experience, making it easier for the cycle to repeat itself each time you encounter the trigger.

The Impact on the Brain Repeatedly indulging in addictive behaviour strengthens the neural pathways associated with triggers. Over time, this can lead to a deep-rooted and automatic response to triggers, making it incredibly challenging to resist cravings. This is why addiction often feels like a vicious cycle that's hard to break.

What are some common triggers?

Emotions: Emotional triggers are specific emotional states or experiences that lead individuals to seek solace or relief through using drugs/alcohol. These triggers are often associated with a desire to escape or cope with uncomfortable feelings such as stress, anxiety, sadness, or loneliness, however, many people also use in response to feeling happiness, excitement or elation.

People, places, things and times of day: Certain people, locations associated with your addiction and/or drug paraphernalia can act as powerful triggers, pulling you back into the addictive cycle. For example, if you used to drink at a specific bar or smoke at a specific friend's house, then walking back into that bar, or visiting that particular friend will ignite cravings and urges, compelling you to seek the addictive substance.

What Can Be Done About It?

  1. Awareness: The first step in managing triggers is awareness. Identify your triggers and understand how they operate in your life. This self-awareness is the foundation upon which you can build strategies for change.

  2. Prevent exposure to triggers: Avoid triggers whenever possible ( for example, evaluate friendships and avoid risky environments). When avoidance is not possible, learn to cope with triggers differently than in the past (learn coping skills).

  3. Seek Professional Help: Addiction is a complex issue, and professional help is often crucial. Therapists and counsellors can provide you with tools and techniques to address triggers and cope with cravings.

  4. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps you recognise and change the thought patterns and behaviours associated with triggers. It equips you with skills to respond differently when confronted with your triggers.

  5. Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness practices can help you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, allowing you to respond to triggers with greater control and self-compassion.

  6. Support Networks: Joining support groups or seeking support from friends and family can provide you with a community of understanding individuals who can help you navigate triggers.

  7. Healthy Habits: Replace addictive behaviours with healthier alternatives. Exercise, hobbies, and positive social interactions can create new, positive associations.

Triggers in addiction are powerful, but with the right knowledge and support, they can be managed. Understanding how they work in the brain and seeking professional help are crucial steps on the path to recovery. Remember, recovery is a journey, and every step taken towards managing triggers brings you closer to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

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