Understanding Triggers: How Environmental Cues Challenge Recovery
How Triggers Influence Relapse
Today we understand that addiction is far more than just poor choices that lead to physical consequences, such as dependence and withdrawal. Evidence shows that the true nature of substance use disorder is complex, and psychology plays a major role. Furthermore, it isn’t just about what leads people to addiction. It is also important to understand how the brain adapts to the addiction. Moreover, how the mind associates outside elements with drug use. When an outside influence causes cravings to use drugs or alcohol, the external factor is often called a trigger.
Sometimes these factors can create intense reactions, and come from seemingly out of nowhere. So how do triggers happen, and how do you protect yourself from them and prevent relapse?
Triggers are commonly known as any form of stimuli that initiates the desire to engage in drug use. In recovery, this puts individuals at risk of relapse. In some cases, a trigger can cause a person in recovery to slip up and go back to using substances, or they may regress into other self-destructive behaviors.
For some, their addictive behaviors or cravings may result from emotional triggers. They may struggle to cope with certain feelings, like stress or sadness. Over time, many drug users learn to rely heavily on substances to numb themselves to their emotions. So when they start feeling intensely, their mind reverts back to those old habits.
Furthermore, triggers are not exclusively from negative emotions. For instance, some people will feel cravings when they get happy or excited. It might be described as a feeling of invulnerability or confidence, or wish to celebrate. While it is a good thing to embrace the joy in life, it can be dangerous for those who let it be an excuse to use drugs or alcohol.
These emotional responses can occur at random, or they can be inspired by some familiar circumstance. Sometimes people, places and things can spark these intense emotional responses. This is because memories also play a crucial part in development of triggers.
Memory Response to Environmental Cues
Environmental cues not only trigger emotional responses, but also trigger areas in the brain that process memories. Experts state that activating these memory processing systems makes it even more challenging to recover from active addiction. This is something that anyone who has experienced intense drug cravings due to external triggers can attest to.
Some people may use drugs to deal with past traumas or other memories that they are not otherwise equipped to deal with. On the other hand, some may use because their memories of a place, person or an event may be so strongly associated in their mind to using drugs or alcohol. Their mind my glorify past drug use in a specific setting, or may associate a connection with other people with using or risk behaviors.
Two factors commonly contribute to developing a trigger. One is the intensity of a situation. If a memory is extremely powerful and personal, it can easily establish a trigger quickly. For example, someone who experiences the loss of a loved one may feel triggered later on by memories of that loss.
The other is repetition. If a situation is repeated over and over again, that memory can become more and more solidified in the mind. For example, if someone were to use alcohol every time they went to a concert, they might feel triggered when trying to go to a concert while sober.
In either case, their memories are causing the intense reaction that causes drug cravings.
New Study on Triggers and the Brain
A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph reveals that there is a lot going on in the brain when those environmental cues take place that would qualify as a trigger. The study was published in the journal Learning and Memory and featured experiments with lab rats. Researchers measured rats’ memory of objects in test chambers under the influence of cocaine and nicotine. Then they compared those reactions to how well the rats performed when prompted only by the environmental stimuli associated with the drugs. Then, they tested the rats without drugs.
What they found was that if a rat had been under the influence of cocaine or nicotine in the chamber, they would show more activity when testing their memory without drugs. Conversely, if the rat had not been under the influence of drugs, they would not perform as well with memory tests in the same environment.
According to the researchers, this suggests environmental cues corresponding with cocaine and nicotine use can strengthen memories in the brain. As a result, the strength of those triggers can make it harder to treat drug abuse.
If this is the case, it would mean that each time an individual is making memories while under the influence of certain substances, those memories are held stronger in the brain. Therefore, responses to those memories will be more intense.
Dealing with Triggers and Offering Treatment
If memories and emotions can create these intense urges to use or engage in destructive behavior, then these triggers can put individuals at risk of relapse. After all, using drugs or alcohol becomes a “solution” for these emotions or situations. Subsequently, when that “solution” is taken away and the emotions or situations persist, most people do not know how to cope.
This is why comprehensive addiction treatment is so important. An effective program should always off resources for:
- Educating on the science of addiction and how it changes the brain
- Personalized therapy
- Stress and trauma treatment options
- Strategies on coping with triggers
- Relapse prevention programming
- Aftercare recovery support
Luckily, environmental cues may be able to help improve cognitive behavioral therapy. According to a co-author of the memory study mentioned earlier, the powerful cognitive effects of such cues could ultimately be used to enhance learning during the recovery process. Meanwhile, addiction treatment providers must provide quality care that addresses the underlying issues of substance use disorder. This means teaching patients how to cope with emotional shifts, and overcoming trauma and other triggers.