Understanding Trauma Triggers
Addiction Triggers vs. Trauma Triggers: Are triggers the same for an addict as they are for a traumatized partner?
My first internship, years ago, was at an inpatient, addiction treatment hospital. My assignment was to take addicts for a walk on a nature trail through the beautiful, peaceful forest on the property. As we enjoyed the woods and fresh air, my job was to encourage addicts to think about their future and what their life was going to be like after they left the hospital, and to help them articulate a plan that could protect them from relapsing. One of the main topics was triggers.
Sex addicts are frequently “triggered.” Partners of sex addicts are also “triggered.” But are triggers the same for an addict as they are for the traumatized partner?
Understanding the difference between a trauma trigger and an addiction trigger can help take the mystery out of an addict’s seemingly crazy behavior in the first few months and during the years it takes for an addict to retrain himself and his brain. If a partner is able to recognize the difference in addiction triggers and trauma triggers it can help her make sense of her often confusing and unpredictable situation. While the goal is never for the partner to try and control the addict’s recovery — recovery is the addict’s job — understanding an addict, and the addiction, can aid in a victim’s own healing process.
For addicts, anything, literally anything, can be a trigger. And for all addicts, developing new habits and patterns is necessary. But for some, managing triggers will mean changing locations, giving up friendships, and finding a new job in order to help them start afresh, free of the reminders of their old lifestyle: reminders that could potentially trigger and cause them to return to the addiction.
Triggers can be divided into types: external and internal. An external trigger is any object, event, image, person, sight, sound, smell, color, anything external to the addict that taps into an internal state, or even their brain’s “wiring,” which causes an emotional reaction that can lead an addict to act out, or not, depending on how far along the addict is in recovery. A sex addict described one of his external triggers this way:
When I was eight years old, I started looking at my friend’s dad’s Playboy magazines. That was over 40 years ago. I haven’t seen a porn magazine in over 15 years. But there’s still something about a magazine cover, any magazine cover with a woman on it, like women’s magazines on grocery store racks, that reminds me of my old habit of looking at Playboy. I know that magazine covers are a potential trigger for me, so I intentionally do not look at magazine racks, no matter what kind of magazines a store has.
Yet as difficult as external triggers can be for addicts, especially for addicts not that far along in recovery, it is the addict’s internal states, their feelings and emotions, that hold the most power, because while an addict can look away from a magazine or woman in a bikini, it is much more complicated to turn away from emotions.
Internal states, if not properly and carefully managed, can lead to an addict’s acting out. Some of the most common internal triggers for addicts are: sad, mad, lonely, tired, stressed, hungry, and scared. One important reason my job was to take addicts for walks along a serene, nature trail was to encourage them to pay attention to how spending time outdoors in a beautiful environment — as opposed to staying inside the hospital with its institutional colors and furniture — could change the way they feel. Stepping into the woods or relaxing beside the forest’s lake (with its ducks and swans) could immediately change the addict’s mood from sad to hopeful or from anxious to relaxed, so this was one tool they could use to help them manage their feelings.
One addict, from a local SA group, who has been working very diligently on his recovery, described his own struggle with internal triggers this way:
I really fear feeling lonely. I’m fine when my wife is at home or at work nearby. But sometimes she travels for work. When she’s gone I’m always gripped by this horrible, lonely feeling. I am so afraid whenever she has a work trip coming up because I know feeling lonely is a huge struggle for me. In the past I would act out. That’s how I kept from feeling lonely. Now I make sure I call my sponsor and let him know when my wife will be gone. And I can call him any time I need. I check in with my neighbors too. And I make plans. I sign up for the free programs offered at the library. Sometimes I will take a continuing education class at the local high school. I rent or go to movies or invite friends over for dinner. I have a plan in place to help me manage feeling lonely.
Comparing Trauma Triggers and Addiction Triggers
For trauma victims, a trigger is anything that adds to or taps into their already present experience of trauma. For example, in the beginning stages, trauma victims experience overwhelming feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Fear and pain are felt intensely too. Victims can also become overwhelmed with loneliness, especially those in relationships with partners who suffer from intimacy anorexia. Trauma victims are like a glass full with the waters of trauma. A trigger is only one more drop of trauma, but one drop in an already full glass will cause it to overflow.
By contrast triggers for an addict can bring on a desire to act out, not because their glass is too full but rather because a single water drop— any one feeling or desire— itself, is unmanageable, even if their glass is almost empty.
An addict is a person who has a distorted view of reality and who has never learned how to manage or regulate emotions in a healthy manner. That is why a it is important for addicts to stay committed to recovery. A strong recovery program is essential because without it, any drop in the glass continues to be too much. Faithful and committed recovery work includes much more than just stopping the negative behavior. Learning to recognize distorted thinking, and to self-regulate and manage emotions is essential for long-term recovery.
While any emotion for an addict, even an emotion that is normal and healthy, can be unmanageable, the same is not typically true with trauma victims. Trauma victims have difficulty managing emotions, not because they have a distorted view of reality or an immature or under-developed way of dealing with their emotions, but because they are already so overwhelmed by trauma and the fear of additional trauma, that any additional trauma or stress taxes their abilities to cope. That is why healing trauma requires support from coaches, counselors, support groups, good friends, and more: to help victims draw strength from the abilities of others in order to process the trauma. It is rare for a trauma victim to move through trauma and out the other side without help. But with help, it is possible to heal. This is why a partner too needs a strong recovery program.
Calming Fearful Feelings
One of the ways a betrayed partner can lessen the fear she feels and lower the water level in her trauma glass is to begin to unravel the mystery of an addict's behavior. As Dan Siegel explains, victims who actively seek to understand their partner’s addiction and their own trauma are taking a healthy step forward. When victims can look at their ever-present, chaotic, and overwhelming emotions and reality, and can make proper sense of their trauma experience and its root cause, then they can escape being caught up in the past and re-embrace the future with courage and hope.