Managing triggers is one of the most important parts of addiction recovery, especially early on. Addiction is a chronic condition that can’t be cured in the sense of getting treatment, then never having to worry about it again. Many people overcome addiction, but it requires a change in lifestyle, just like managing any other chronic condition.
Willpower alone isn’t enough. Addiction changes your brain in a fundamental way. Every drug works a little differently, but in each case the physiological mechanism is similar. The dopamine system becomes massively overstimulated. While dopamine is associated with pleasure, it is primarily involved with motivation and reward. What’s more, the dopamine system includes the amygdala and hippocampus, parts of the brain associated with emotions and memory, respectively. When you develop an addiction, your brain doesn’t just respond to the drug. It also begins to respond to things commonly associated with the drug. Eventually, dopamine spikes in anticipation of using drugs or alcohol, not when you actually use them.
Remembering the things associated with pleasure is how your brain helps you repeat a massively rewarding experience. This is extremely helpful for encouraging eating and procreation, but it makes matters difficult when you try to quit drugs or alcohol. Addictive substances massively overstimulate the dopamine system and triggers become deeply rooted. After a wile, your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for willpower and decision-making are cut out of the loop and a trigger leads directly to the addictive behavior. It doesn’t matter how strong your willpower is in other regards because the physiology of addiction means your willpower is bypassed completely.
Restoring conscious control of your own behavior is an effort you have to make on several fronts. This is why a holistic approach to addiction treatment is so important. You have to address any mental health issues that may be driving your addiction, and learn specific cognitive and behavioural strategies to regain some control over your emotions and behaviour. You also have to make some lifestyle changes that will help to minimize triggers. Structuring your life in a reasonable way will automatically help you avoid certain triggers and allow you to manage surprises more effectively.
Know what your triggers are.
The most important thing is to know what your triggers are. Otherwise, you can’t possibly avoid them. Start by listing the people, places, and things you associate with substance use. That’s people you used to drink or use drugs with, places where you drank or used, or items that remind you of drinking or using. These don’t have to be drug paraphernalia per se, just anything you associate with using. It might be a lighter, a distinctive clock, or a chair. Most triggers will be things closely associated with substance use by time or physical proximity.
Triggers aren’t only people, places, and things. Stress is a major trigger for most people. Feeling overwhelmed often makes people feel like they can’t deal with their problems so they’d rather avoid them through substance use. Habits are another big trigger. For example, if you used to come home from work every day, turn on the television, sit on the couch and start drinking, following that same pattern but not drinking is difficult.
Finally, remember HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These are temporary problems and they’re easy to solve, but if you’re not aware of them, they can trip you up.
Plan ahead in both your regular routine and your day ahead. For example, if your route to work takes you past your favorite bar, you can avoid a lot of temptation just by taking a different route every day. Reduce or eliminate your dealings with people who might tempt you to drink or use drugs. If you can, put away items you associate with substance use.
You may also have to make some bigger changes. For example, if you work at a bar, whether you own it or sweep the floor, you might want to consider a career change. While some people can maintain recovery while working in a high-risk situation, many people find working in situations with easy access to substances too difficult. This is also true of people working in high stress jobs. Medical professionals are in an especially difficult position, since they often have high stress jobs and access to potent drugs. Fortunately, it’s generally possible for medical professionals to find jobs better suited to recovery.
Also, be sure to think through your day. Will you have to go someplace or deal with someone who might trigger you? Will there be alcohol at an office party? If so, see if you can change things around. If not, find some way to keep yourself accountable, possibly by bringing someone else along.
Manage your stress.
Stress is a major trigger for most people. Anything you can do to reduce your stress will make dealing with other triggers much easier. As noted above, if your job is a major source of stress, as it often is for lawyers and medical professionals, you might consider a career change, or at least a job change. However, there are other ways to reduce stress. Getting enough sleep is a big one, as is getting regular exercise. Therapy can help tremendously, since much of our stress is self-imposed. Getting organized can reduce stress too. When you have a schedule and a list of things you need to do, life feels less chaotic.
Be ready for surprises.
No matter how well you plan ahead, you will sometimes be surprised. Have a plan for what to do in case you walk into an unexpected trigger. Have someone you can call, or have a strategy ready to stay calm. Keep in mind that cravings are often situational and that they will quickly pass. Just being aware of your triggers can help you deal with them more effectively when you are surprised.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or a mental health issue, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. We use cutting-edge treatment modalities to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.