When we are trying to stop any addiction or behavior, whether its emotional eating, anger, drinking, smoking, drug use, or just trying to decrease our anxiety responses, it’s important to learn how to identify the triggers for each behavior are. Most undesired behaviors have a trigger that increases it’s likelihood of occurring. Last week, I discussed the dangers of alcohol abuse specifically, but today’s post can be applied to any undesired behavior you are trying to stop.
How do triggers work?
Emotional triggers work in a way similarly to physical triggers – they cause the body and/or mind to create an automatic response. If you hear a loud and unexpected “bang”, there is a good chance you may jump up and scream, you may even feel a quick rush of adrenaline rush through your body as it prepares for it’s “fight or flight” response. So this loud bang triggered your startled response. Often times triggers for addiction, anger, depression, etc cause an “automatic” thought or feeling.
When it comes to addiction, some of the triggers are physical responses, especially if the addiction has also become a physical addiction. However, it’s the psychological addiction we can address in this article. When we learn to identifywhat our triggers are, we can learn either how to avoid them, think about them differently, and/or challenge them. When it gets to the point that we react automatically to the trigger, who is in control, you or the trigger? The trigger has taken control, so let us work on helping you regain control over yourself!
How do I identify my triggers?
When I have a client who wishes to identify their triggers, I suggest they keep either a physical or mental diary of the event. If you find yourself craving alcohol, a drug, wanting to eat food, etc, keep a journal and answer the following questions… (note: to keep on the topic of addiction, we will use drug/alcohol addiction as the example)
- Describe (identify) the situation – what happened? For example, did you drink more than you planned? Did you say you did not want to drink and gave in and drank anyway? Did you tell yourself you weren’t going to drink tonight when home by yourself, but drank anyway?
- What was happening RIGHT before the event happened? What were you thinking about? Who were you around? Where were you? If you were with someone, what were you talking about? List everything that happened beforehand you can possibly think of – This way, when you go back to examine what is common about each situation before you gave in, you can notice what is repeating itself.
- How did you feel when you immediately gave in? Did you feel guilt? Did you feel relieved? Happy? Sad?
- Once the event was over (after drinking, or the next day – once you were sober again), how did you feel? Did you feel guilty the next day? Were you mad at yourself? Did you not care that you had given in? Did you wish you would have done something else instead?
- What could you have done differently? If you wish you hadn’t given in, what could you have done instead to avoid giving in? Would it have been helpful to explain further why you didn’t want to drink? Would you have avoided going to the bar or a party? Could you have done a different activity instead?
- How do you think you would feel if you had reacted as described in number 5? Would have felt a sense of more control? Would you have felt guilty for avoiding certain situations? Would you have been happy you didn’t use?
Making a plan for the next time…
After a while, you should start noticing similarities in the situations where you use, drink, eat, etc… Once you have identified those triggers, it is important to create a plan for the next time. One of the methods I have used before with clients is the DISARM method (Destructive Self-Talk Awareness and Refusal Method). This method helps you to expose your irrational self talk (the triggers) which tell you to give in to your cravings. It allows you to challenge and fight them. It is true that we cannot just will ourselves to not have certain thoughts or feelings, including strong urges, we can learn how to recognize that there are actually thoughts driving our urges and how to refuse to go along with them.
When you are feeling urges and cravings, answer the following questions…
- Question 1: Do I have to give into the urge because it is intense and difficult to resist?
- Answer 1: No, I do not have to give in. Although the urge is strong, and it would be easy to give in, I DON’T HAVE TO! I have had urges in the past that I did not give into, therefore it must be possible to resist. (In this situation, even if you haven’t not given into an urge in the past, know that others have overcome the urges and made it through – so it is possible!)
- Question 2: Will it be awful to deny myself by not giving into the urge?
- Answer 2: No, it will not be awful. It may be quite unpleasant, but unpleasant is not awful, it’s just unpleasant. If I don’t give into the urge, it will get weaker and come less often. If I do give in, the urge will stay strong, be harder to resist next time, and show up more often.
Then – DISARM the enemy – Some people find it helpful to dissociate the urge from themselves. Remember, the urge is something that is pushing you to use, it’s not a faulty part of yourself, it’s a harmful thought/urge that’s trapped inside you.
a) Identify the specific thoughts/triggers that lead you to using when have already decided that giving in is not the choice you want. Then…
b)steadfastly refuse to go along the thinking no matter how attractive it might seem. Instead of talking yourself into giving into the urge, you can develop countering and coping statements. Remember, the urge is a harmful thought that is stuck inside your mind that you need to let out, it is your enemy. This enemy knows you quite well, and can change form to take advantage of your weakest moments. Every time the urge comes back, ask yourself, “What is this enemy telling me now? How is the enemy trying to trick me?”
Once you know what the enemy is trying to tell you, try the following…
- Without debate, ATTACK the enemy with powerful counter statements; “Nice try jerk, You can’t fool me!” You can be as aggressive or profane as your nature allows with the enemy – after all, it’s trying to screw up your life.
- Then, quickly FOCUS on some other thought, image, or activities which are consistent with what you want in the long run, and inconsistent with what the enemy is saying. If you’re trying to stop drinking or using so you can become healthy, look at a photo of you when you were healthy before you started drinking/using. If you’re trying to stop smoking, look at photos of people who have destroyed their lives smoking. Make a folder, drawer, board, etc of all the quotes, photos, and statements that you can use as inspiration and motivation to not give into your urge.
Later on, you can submit the enemy’s tricks to ABC analysis to dispute them…
Activating Event: What was the activating event? What was your trigger? What event allowed this enemy back in?
Beliefs: What thoughts or beliefs did this activating even lead to? What is the enemy trying to tell you?
- “I should give into drinking because I don’t want to feel what I’m currently feeling” – Instead, ask why you don’t want to feel this way, and are there other ways to avoid the feeling? (i.e. – calling up a friend? Going for a run or workout?)
Consequences: What will the consequence be if you give in to the above belief? Is it true? Is this what you want?
This should give you a head start on ways to identify what your current triggers are. Over the next week or so, try writing down your answers to the questions listed above. If you’re looking for a printable trigger journal, check out this example HERE. The next post on Thursday, I’ll discuss more ways for identifying relapse triggers and avoiding relapse prevention.
In the meantime, feel free to tell us what other ways you have found to identify your triggers. What things have you tried to avoid giving into your urges?
Works Cited and Recommended Reading
ABC’s of Thinking of Feeling (written for Panic Attacks, but same ABC analysis can work in any situation)
Identifying Triggers (Written for Anger Management, but can work for identifying any trigger)
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.