All about triggers

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A trigger is something that sets off a memory or flashback that takes someone back to the incident or situation of a trauma. Or that reminds them of an addiction they are trying to quit.

Triggers can be completely different for different people. They can be obvious such as a recovering alcoholic who sees people drinking some beer or someone giving up cannabis who gets a smell of it being smoked.

But in fact anything that stimulates any of the five senses can be a trigger. This includes people, places and things.

Even the smallest thing such as someone catching sight of a certain shade of blue can cause a trigger. Sometimes a trigger can be something that is brought on through more than one of the senses.

Triggers make it much more difficult to stay on the right path of recovery. This includes for every type of addiction or mental health problem.

As well as addiction to drink and drugs it includes behavioral addictions such as gambling, sex and eating disorders. Presently due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is the case that triggers may come on more swiftly due to people’s increased stress at work and the generally heightened state of anxiety.

When someone becomes aware and wary or sometimes scared of certain triggers it can affect their daily living in a major way. For some people this leads to isolation as they seek to avoid any of their triggers.

How the five senses trigger us

Sound and sight are the senses that most frequently trigger people. But smell, touch and taste can also be massive triggers.

  • Sound

Music is one of the biggest triggers, especially certain songs and their lyrics. But other triggers that we hear could be absolutely anything that reminds someone of the trauma or addiction – from the sound of a door opening to the noise of a howling wind.

It is regularly such as the sound of crying, footsteps, loud voices, whispering or a scream. It could also be specific words or even the tone of someone’s voice.

  • Sight

If someone was abused or suffered another trauma then sight can trigger them if they see someone who looks like a person involved with the trauma. Or it could be that someone looks nothing like the person associated with the trauma, but they have similar shoes, clothes or have a certain physical characteristic that resembles the person such as the way they walk or their hairstyle.

It can also be something that reminds someone of the place where the trauma or using took place. This could be a certain armchair or type of lampshade.

For some people it might be a certain object such as a belt, like one that was used to abuse them (or that they used while taking drugs) or seeing a small handheld mirror that they associate with cocaine addiction.

  • Smell

This can be any smell, even the faintest aroma, that reminds someone of a trauma, an abuser or an addiction. Commonly this is tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, aftershave or perfume and body odor.

For some people it can even be smells that most people think of as pleasant such as food cooking, flowers or the pine smell of a Christmas tree.

  • Touch

Touch triggers are anything that feels like something connected with the trauma or addiction. That could be something that is the same or similar, such as a material like cotton or leather. 

Or it might be something that closely resembles something else – perhaps a certain physical touch from someone, an animal’s fur or even the feeling of the breeze on someone’s face. It could also be the texture of something that someone eats.

  • Taste

Obvious taste triggers are certain foods, or perhaps something that is similarly sweet or bitter. It could also be the taste of a drink or perhaps the taste that comes into the mouth from for instance being too close to someone who’s smoking.

Other triggers can be certain family or social events and holidays. It could be that every Easter someone gets terrible flashbacks. It might even be that a certain time of the day triggers someone.

Why do triggers happen?

Some experts think our brains store memories from a trauma differently due to them being needed as part of our fight or flight survival instincts. Trauma can include an addiction that has caused major problems.

Frequently a trigger causes an emotional reaction before a person even becomes aware of it. Then this reaction or feeling leads to thoughts that create a more intense emotional reaction.

This can lead to behaviors that only make things worse. Or it can cause physical reactions such as panic attacks that make it difficult to respond in a positive way or to cope at all.

It will also have a negative impact on physical wellbeing. This is because when the body is in fight or flight mode our blood rushes to our arms, legs and brain – that are needed in a potentially dangerous situation. But this means our immune system is depleted.

How to deal with triggers

The best action is to avoid known triggers. However it is often impossible to know when a trigger will arise.

If triggered, breathing deeply and slowly will help. Also, learning to become aware of the emotional reaction that happens if triggered because having an awareness of it can lessen its stranglehold.

Have some trusted friends on hand to call who can bring you back to the moment. But for anyone who is regularly triggered the best thing is to see a professional therapist who knows exactly how to help.

Our expert team here has helped many people deal with triggers. One useful tool we teach is emotional rehabilitation, which is the strengthening of our inner ability to deal with certain things. It uses proven methods to return to a healthy and positive state of being. 

At Tikvah Lake we always give personal individualized treatment plans that work best for every guest. These include our 10-Day Executive Treatment and 30-90 Day Personalized Treatment programs.

Our luxury mansion house right by our beautiful tranquil lake is perfect for recovery. Florida’s year-round sunny weather is also ideal.

Get in touch with one of our team today to discover what we can do to help you or someone you care about.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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