Recovery Workshop: Lesson Sixty-Six
Recovery Triggers vs Relapse Triggers
Everyone knows what relapse triggers are. They are the stimuli — the people, places, situations, emotional states, thoughts, etc — that can "trigger" an ingrained ritualistic response. In some ironic twist, triggers have become associated with fear and avoidance in the mainstream recovery environment — which is a tragedy. Learning to identify relapse triggers and especially the emotional intensity that they invoke can be an effective tool in managing your compulsive behavioral patterns before they enter the trance-like state. So much has been written on relapse triggers, that we will not attempt to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, we will share several of the most common approaches to using relapse triggers and provide you with some functional ways to use them in relapse prevention. The goal of this lesson is not to focus on the triggers themselves, but to gain a philosophical understanding of the role that relapse triggers play in recovery and how a simple change in perspective can translate into a major changes in your approach to life.
"Click here for free porn!"
"The Man of Your Dreams is just a click away! Get your free account today."
Talk about triggers. Like Pavlov's dog, just the sight of words such as 'free porn' or the idea of gaining access to entire database of new people to browse through can often launch the all-too-familiar ritualistic chain of (for porn) clicking on the link...followed by more clicking on more links...followed by fantasies...followed by masturbation...followed by covering up the behavior...followed by... Well, you get the idea. For love addiction, the chain may look more like" clicking on the link...searching through some initial profiles...begin fantasizing...searching for days at a time...begin contacting profiles...engaging in online conversation...engaging in time consuming, energy-draining online relationships...etc.
Triggers elicit emotion-based decisions that stem from the selfish, secret part of your identity — the part of your identity that has grown immune to things like values, goals, consequences and rational thought. Instead, it's "Can I get away with it?" or "It's not going to harm anyone if I just look." or "Just for a few minutes." Or one of a whole library of rationalizations you have to choose from by the time an addiction has developed.
"So then, shouldn't we fear such blatant triggers?"
Not if you are sincere in seeking a permanent end to your sexually/romantically compulsive behavior. To permanently end these patterns, several changes must take place to the core of how you manage your life — this much we should all know by now. One of those changes involves the acknowledgment/acceptance that there is no possible way to eliminate all potential triggers. They are everywhere. And, as those who learn to see things differently can attest...they are nowhere — except in our own minds. The value that such stimuli have in altering your emotional state directly corresponds to the way that you have learned to perceive that stimuli. But just as methodically as your current perceptions have developed, new perceptions can be achieved.
As a non-compulsive lay person, it would be hard to look at Western society today and not recognize how sexualized it has become. Or how much that having a partner or 'being in love' is a direct representation of the individual. And, save for moving to the Montana wilderness...you would be hard pressed to avoid such perceptions — no matter how moral or value-oriented you might be. Imagine then, the perceptions of someone who has struggled with sexual behavior...someone who has sexualized the great majority of their life. Imagine this person having committed themselves to abstaining from compulsive sexual behavior, yet they are bombarded with sexual triggers at every turn. Imagine someone who has struggled with relationships since early childhood. They progress through adolescence, early adulthood...still feeling uncomfortable in learning how to manage a successful relationship. Yet, they feel a constant societal pressure to be in a relationship and so they feel uncomfortable when they are not.
Avoiding such triggers is an impossible task, yet let's imagine for a moment that they sincerely try. Desperately so, even. Unfortunately, because they are so hypersensitive to sexual and/or romantic stimuli, their life becomes a miserable, frustrating and exhausting experience on a daily basis. Yet, they continue to strive for abstinence.
Now, take that struggling person and introduce the idea of "free porn" or 'instant relationships' into their awareness and it should be expected that a significant emotional struggle would ensue. In fact, depending on the person's approach to recovery, several common reactions should be expected:
I. For those who lack even the most basic recovery skills
Such triggers will often create the need to play out the ritual. If it is an Internet link to porn — they follow that link. If it is a magazine found in the bottom of a dumpster — they reach down and grab the magazine. If it is a Victoria's Secret catalog sent in the mail — they flip through it. Not in a healthy way, but in a sexualized, fantasizing way. Even if it turns out to be a hoax, with the stimuli misleading the individual...the ritual has begun...and can only be completed by the eventual completion of the sexual chain.
With the introduction of the triggering stimuli, their interest (e.g. emotions) is piqued and they consider no option other than to follow that trigger to wherever it may lead. There is no guilt, no shame. Not much, anyway. And to make matters worse, they often justify their acting on such triggers with a moral foundation that convinces them that there is 'nothing wrong with looking'. Or, that they "aren't hurting anyone."
For this group, such triggers are like watching a train wreck. Even if they wanted to turn away, they couldn't. At least, that is what they believe.
II. For those who pursue recovery, but who lack the realization/awareness that true recovery is possible
When one has the desire to remain abstinent but lacks not only the skills and insights to do so naturally; but the belief that permanent change is possible...simply stumbling across the words 'free porn' (or some other emotionally loaded trigger) tends to create an itch that must eventually be scratched — when no one is looking, of course. The scratching may not happen that day, or that week. It may not be that particular stimuli that is used to relieve the itch. But eventually, once they are initially exposed to the stimuli — and begin to experience the resulting anxiety and pressure that comes from that stimulation — they will act out. Again, when 'no one is looking'. When they think that it is safe. Sometimes, they will be able to resist the urge to scratch, but will experience enormous stress and anxiety in the process.
To this group, for as long as they remain abstinent, they consider their recovery a success. They equate recovery with abstinence...not quality of life. Which makes any success that they experience temporary and hollow. Because of their preconceptions that they are hypersexual...or sexually abnormal (and they very well might be, that is not the point), they continue to perceive a constant flux of 'triggers' that seem to bombard their everyday life. Eventually, inevitably...they either run out of energy from fighting the triggers...or they become bitter for having to fight them. In either case, the energy to fight runs out...and they experience a weakness. A relapse.
Over time, they develop a very black and white approach to recovery where their pursuit of recovery becomes its own entity...and they lose touch with what recovery is all about. Not a pursuit of health and personal growth, but a pursuit of abstinence, and an avoidance of failure. And as they entrench themselves further and further into recovery, their identity becomes lost. They see themselves as 'addicts'. They openly accept that they are 'different' from 'normal' people. Or worse, they rush to accept that they will always be different — incapable of living a 'normal' life. And so, rather than moving beyond addiction...they fight a constant and emotionally exhausting battle against such triggers. They remain on constant alert for triggers such as 'free porn'...and react with abhorrence and stress when they are encountered. Not the worst approach to take in recovery, but it has significant flaws from a quality of life standpoint.
The difficulty in this level of recovery is that, while the person may be sincere in their desire to remain abstinent...they see the trigger itself as the catalyst for failure, rather than the lack of skills that they currently possess to manage that stimuli. Rather than seeing their immature life management skills as the center of their decision making, they instead see themselves as helplessly susceptible to such triggers.
"I wouldn't have had the affair if she didn't come on to me." "I stayed abstinent for months until they sent me that e-mail with the free porn link...I couldn't help myself."
Such post-relapse awareness is common. And its comforting — putting rational thought to irrational behavior. But its inaccurate. At least in terms of experiencing long term health and stability.
III. For those who pursue recovery, who believe that long term recovery is possible, but who lack the foundation and skills to pursue a healthy recovery
When such an individual encounters a trigger, they often experience equally strong bouts of anxiety and pressure (in comparison to the previous group). In fact, the pressure is often more intense...as to this group, recovery is war — with each trigger likened to a battlefield. And so, when in the face of the enemy (aka the 'trigger'), they ready themselves for a fight — mustering every ounce of emotional, moral and spiritual strength in their arsenal to win. Their reward? One more day of abstinence.
And therein lies the problem. Not the goal of abstinence, or the fact that this approach is 'better' when comparing it to the alternative of acting out. Those are both worthy goals, and allow the individual to taste success in recovery. No, the problem with this approach is that the individual perceives the triggers themselves as having power over them. They see the triggers as actual entities that they will be required to fight for the rest of their lives. That the best they will ever achieve in relation to recovery, is the ability to win the daily battles that will inevitably occur over the course of the remainder of their lives.
Over time, with such an approach, a sort of dependency sets in...where the person becomes hypersensitive to sexual triggers. They develop a tendency to over-react to normal life stimuli through avoidance, paranoia, anxiety and other signs of irrationality. Eventually...this overreaction comes full circle...and rather than the initial trigger producing the 'fight or flight' response it once did...it instead creates emotions that drain the individual's emotional reserves: anxiety, stress, anger — these are but a few. Then, the day comes where the person just doesn't have the strength to fight the urges 'triggered' by the stimuli...and relapse occurs. A pattern that reinforces the notion that they are permanently damaged, and will always be so.
Now, if there was ever an end to such triggers, this might prove to be an effective long term approach for a healthy recovery. Fight each trigger until they disappear, and you will never again have to worry about acting out. But that isn't reality. Reality is, with that mindset...there will never be an end to potential triggers. Why? Because potential triggers can be anything at all. They can be anywhere. In any form. The fact of the matter is, and it is a fact that this group has an extremely difficult time grasping — is that the stimuli itself is irrelevant. It is only the emotional associations that an individual develops in relation to a stimuli that will determine what is and what isn't a trigger. A hard pill to swallow for those utilizing such a "fight every trigger...never let my guard down for a minute" approach to recovery. They spend their lives trying to root out all triggers...trying to develop a safe haven within their own lives. A place where they won't be 'triggered'. But rarely do they succeed in building such a life...because again, triggers are completely perceptual. They're not real entities.
The fight that these people need to take on, is not with the triggers, but with their own minds. They prioritize so much energy putting up the protective walls, searching for potential triggers...they never stop long enough to realize that the triggers themselves have no power. The power exists entirely in the way that they are perceiving that stimulus. More on this in a moment. Whether it's a picture of a naked woman, an offer to have an affair, or the stumbling across a link to "free porn"...the actual stimulus has no power whatsoever. It is the emotions that those stimuli produce in the individual that is key.
And so, once this is realized...and rather than fighting an endless battle with each trigger they come across for the rest of their lives...healthy people in recovery make the decision to transition into the final group:
IV. Those who are committed to recovery, who recognize the reality of permanent change taking place...and who are committed to developing the skills necessary to adopt those changes
This group, with a firm grasp of the life that they are striving to develop, recognize that a trigger isn't a battle that needs to be fought — it is an awareness that needs to be developed. Rather than each trigger being an emotionally draining, endless fight against possible relapse...they learn to achieve emotional fulfillment by learning to perceive each trigger as an opportunity. An opportunity to further develop their life management skills; an opportunity to gain further experience and confidence in managing their life; and an opportunity to further commit themselves to the values that they are choosing to develop.
Inevitably, with such an approach, they begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel in a rather short time. It starts with their no longer fearing existing triggers. It expands to them no longer worrying about/avoiding potential future triggers. And it ends with their developing confidence that, no matter what stimuli may come their way, they have ingrained the skills needed to perceive that stimuli as an opportunity to further their own personal growth.
Is this realistic for everyone? Or is it a recovery goal capable of being experienced by only a few?
Recognizing and managing triggers in a healthy way is a skill that can be developed by anyone. It requires emotional awareness, decision making, understanding perceptions and a clear sense of personal values — which are all things that can be developed by anyone with enough sincerity to put forth the effort to do so. And EVERYONE who develops this ability will experience the same healthy consequence — they will have acquired the key ingredient towards making a permanent transition from addiction to health: the ability to directly manage/change their core identity. Unfortunately, there is one requirement that is essential to achieving success in this area...and it is the one area where most Western recovery philosophies refuse to accept. That is, the individual must recognize that what "triggers" them is not the stimulus, but the emotions that they have associated with that stimulus. Not only must they embrace this fact, but they must do so with the same certainty in which the concept "once an addict; always an addict" has been embraced by recent Western recovery doctrine. This is not an easy thing to do. Why it is an important distinction to make, is because one refers to a trigger as being an event outside of an individual's control; while the other allows for perceptual change to occur based solely on an individual's current life management skills.
As a fact, triggers are internal events...not external. They are perceived events...and as such, the emotions associated with the stimulus itself can be changed. How? It takes faith. It takes courage. And it takes an absolute commitment to ending the patterns of addiction. So, the question that you need to ask yourself is, when you see the words, "Free Porn"...how do you want to respond? Is it to helplessly follow that link to wherever it may lead? Consequences be damned. Is it to experience anxiety and stress at the thought of what it may lead you to do? Is it to experience anger and resentment for whomever put such a trigger in your path? Or is it to feel confidence, recognizing that such things are only destructive triggers if you perceive them to be? That, with training and experience, they can also serve as constructive triggers...leading to personal growth and emotional fulfillment.
When it is the latter, and that perception has become ingrained (through consistent experience), you will be rewarded with never again having to fear 'triggers'. In a healthy transition, this doesn't mean that you ignore them or take them for granted. In fact, a healthy recovery requires that you maintain an ongoing awareness of potential triggers...but no longer will you fear them...or their ability to changing the course of your life. They will have been stripped of the power that you once believed they held over you.
Relapse Triggers: Preventing relapse is good; Promoting health is better.
Relapse triggers, though significantly important, are a bit of an antithesis in terms of what is known to promote long-term health and recovery. The key to that sentence, though, is the word "promote". As they are often used in the recovery community, "relapse triggers" are not used to promote health, but rather, to prevent relapse. In theory, by identifying such relapse triggers, one can put into action a plan that will help them avoid acting out. It will help them to prevent a slip. This is better than the alternative, which is to act out, but such an "avoidance" platform does not promote the emphasis on growth and health that is needed to make a permanent recovery. Let's take a woman struggling with compulsive overeating, and see how she has effectively used relapse triggers to avoid acting out:
Mary has a ten-year history of compulsive overeating. She has recognized this destructive pattern, and has identified the main triggers for when she eats compulsively. The relapse triggers she identified were sadness, anger and sexy commercials. She knew that, when she would become angry, she would eat. When she would feel sad, she would eat. When a commercial with sexy women came on, only her willingness to down a quart of Rocky Road ice cream and two Big Macs was enough to make her feel better. Temporarily better, anyway, as that last swallow usually led to extreme bouts of guilt and shame. Mary's weight regularly fluctuated between 250 and 300 pounds. While in recovery, she developed realistic long-term weight loss goals (but no short term goals to help her get there), learned healthy eating patterns (though selectively applied the majority of what she learned) and developed effective action plans to use should she ever find herself feeling angry, sad or watching commercials. As the months passed, Mary began to immediately recognize these relapse triggers and did an excellent job with invoking her action plans...which always allowed her to stop the compulsive eating. This was everything that she was asked to do, and she felt great about her progress in recovery. Her weight decreased significantly for a while, then everything stabilized, and she could no longer lose weight. She had stopped the compulsive behavior, but her everyday eating patterns had leveled off to a point where she could lose no more weight simply by "avoiding overeating". It now required something more. This realization that her success was limited, triggered a new round of overeating, a significant weight gain...and the cycle began once more.
By Mary focusing on using relapse triggers to prevent her overeating, she settled for the absolute minimum benefit that such relapse triggers would provide for her. Again, there is nothing wrong with this...for someone whose only goal is to stop the compulsive behavior. The action plan that she had developed was effective in helping her to achieve this goal. But as we have said many times, recovery is not about stopping the behavior, it is about replacing those destructive behavioral patterns with healthy, fulfilling ones. Had she fully realized what relapse triggers were, she would have recognized that they not only provide a safety net against relapse, but also a springboard towards health. She would have begun to see each time that she was angry or sad as an opportunity to develop her own values and skills even further. The issue would no longer be interpreted as, "Am I or am I not going to be able to control my eating this time?", but rather, it shifts to a more healthy, "Here's an opportunity for me to continue developing into the person that I want to become."
Granted, the success of such an attitude as described above will be determined by the proper development of the action plan itself (something we will all be doing). But when that action plan is effective, what happens is that such a growth-oriented attitude actually begins to generalize over time. It begins to invade other areas of her life. Eventually, not only do relapse triggers become something that no longer produces anxiety, they actually become a source of strength and emotional energy. Even new situations that have not yet been identified as a trigger become simple to handle. Relapse is no longer feared. Slips become nonexistent. All due to a simple shift in your perspective on recovery. And it happens to everyone. Everyone, that is, that makes the transition from a focus on recovery to a focus on health. It is just a matter of time and practice.
Relapse Triggers are more effective as Recovery Triggers
For starters, rather than referring to enticing stimuli as "relapse triggers", begin to see such things as "recovery triggers". Begin to shift the focus from the more negative, avoidance-oriented behavior that is used to prevent relapse, to a more growth-oriented, positive behavior that actually promotes health. Begin to see your recovery triggers as opportunities for personal growth — opportunities to put into practice the skills, values and insights that you have been learning. Such a change is part of the transition that needs to be made to begin separating yourself from your unhealthy, destructive past...to begin rebuilding an identity that is associated with the values that are important to you. So, as you begin to recognize such recovery triggers...it is important that you begin to disassociate yourself from the previous destructive, fear-producing emotions and see yourself instead as facing another opportunity to further your values, goals, etc.
You now have a choice to make for your own life. You can accept that such relapse triggers are all around you, and try to fight them off one at a time in an effort to prevent relapse. Or, you can recognize that things are what you perceive them to be. And when you perceive such triggers to be opportunities to grow — to gain valuable experience in ingraining new behavioral patterns — then you will have the opportunity to successfully utilize the life management skills that you are developing on a daily basis. And that is when the true changes occur.
Lesson 66 Exercise:
a) Consider your perspective towards potential triggers when you were in early recovery. Consider your perspective now. How has this changed?
b) List five potential triggers for you — that may lead you into a compulsive crisis. How can you shift your perspective of each so that they are not only NOT a threat to your values, but you can actually use these triggers to strengthen those values?