Triggers: A Fact of Recovery


One of the most challenging aspects of recovery is how to handle triggers. No matter what the source addiction is—whether it’s alcohol and substance addictions, sexual addictions, addictive co-dependencies or something else—we all have to deal with things that make us want to re-engage in the self-destructive patterns that brought us into recovery in the first place. Triggers can be people; triggers can be places; triggers can be emotions; and triggers can be related to our five senses, such as sounds, tastes or odors. Even a vaguely familiar face can set off a pattern of thought that may lead us down the wrong road, and before we know it, we’re triggered and struggling to hold it together.

An important thing for an individual in recovery to understand about triggers is that we all have them. I’ve been on my personal path of recovery for more than 20 years, and I still have to deal with triggers almost every day. Thankfully, I’ve developed some robust coping mechanisms to help me handle my primary triggers. I’ve realized that the most important factor in handling my triggers is an intimate knowledge of exactly what they are, and the most important tool I have in my recovery toolbox for identifying when I’m triggered is mindfulness.

A Mindful Approach to Triggers

Mindfulness can be thought of as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s personal experience of the world. This type of moment-to-moment awareness, and an understanding of how to use it to handle my triggers, has been a great asset to my recovery. While this may not be true for everyone—and there have certainly been thousands of people who’ve been successful in their recovery with absolutely no knowledge of mindfulness techniques—I know for myself that, without mindfulness, I’d run the risk of being at the mercy of my triggers. In my experience, a trigger, which for me tends to be a combination of sights and sounds, gives me an anxious, unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes it’s small, and sometimes it’s enormous and close to what I’ve heard people in AA meetings call a “God-Sized Hole.” Often I’m not aware of how it happened, but whenever I feel that sensation I immediately stop what I’m doing and implement the following mindfulness technique known as “The Four Rs” (Regulate, Relax, Recognize, Reassess):

  • Regulate the Breath: I bring my attention to my breathing. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, it’s always possible to focus on breathing. First, I just notice it; next, I breathe deeply into my abdomen (aka belly breathing) in the manner of seated meditation.
  • Relax the Body: Once my attention is on my breathing and I’ve begun breathing in my abdomen, I bring my attention to my body. I relax my shoulders, my neck, my jaw and my face. Over the years, I’ve realized that there are very few physical activities that actually require a clenched jaw, raised shoulders and a stiff neck, and the simple act of relaxing these areas is, quite literally, like lifting a weight from my soul.
  • Recognize the World: Once my breathing is steady and my body is relaxed, I begin to focus on what’s happening around me. This step may seem a bit silly at first, but here’s how to do it: look around and just notice things that are related to the five senses—the color of someone’s shirt, the sounds coming from the street or the next room, the immediate sensations of your own clothes against your body, any taste that might be lingering in your mouth, and any odors that may be present in your proximate environment. Doing this will help ground you in the here and now, and keep your mind off things you can’t control.
  • Reassess the Situation: After regulating my breathing, relaxing my body and recognizing what’s going on in the world around me, I think back to immediately before I felt my “trigger” sensation and try to identify exactly what it was the caused it. Almost without fail, the first three steps of this process—regulate, relax and recognize—serve to transform my internal state from feeling triggered to feeling on top of the situation, and I’m able to understand what triggered me.

Mindfulness and Triggers: The Gift of Awareness

Throughout my recovery process, mindfulness has helped me both on the macro level, by allowing me to understand how my addictions have affected my life in general, and on the micro level, by granting me a finely tuned awareness of how my addictive tendencies affect my internal life on a moment-to-moment basis. My triggers always happen on the micro level, but without the skills to process them, they would almost certainly have consequences on the macro level. The regular practice of The “Four Rs” has allowed me to proactively handle my triggers for years. By the time I’m at the fourth “R,” I find that I’m breathing calmly, my body is relaxed, and I’m focused on the world around me. The “fight or flight” sensations of my trigger begin to fade, and I’m able to move forward with a clear mind and a balanced perspective.

By Angus Whyte

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