Trigger Thoughts

By Phil Valentine and Art Woodard

Over the years I’ve coached recovery, I’ve witnessed how the word trigger has morphed. What used to be a helpful concept is now a term that often elicits fear, concern, and at the worst, fragility and pity.

I noticed this while facilitating the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy. On Day One, we establish a working agreement.  On several consecutive occasions people expressed a sentiment regarding triggers. They either didn’t want to trigger somebody or they didn’t want to be triggered.  I began to challenge this notion.

“What do you mean by ‘trigger’ exactly? Are you concerned that someone might be triggered to the point where they go out and use?”

“No, not exactly. I just don’t want people to be hurt.”

I interpret this to mean that they don’t want anything uncomfortable, like a strong feeling, to surface. I silently think.

“As a Recovery Coach, I’m pretty sure you’ll experience strong emotion, in you and the people you serve.”  I let it ride and ask for clarification.

“Well that’s a bit different, don’t you think? How could we re-frame that?” We move on from there. I’m left thinking about triggers.

I’m not talking about trigger as a noun here. That’s “a small device that when pulled releases a spring or catch and so sets off a mechanism, especially in order to fire a gun”.

I am talking about trigger as a verb – to cause (an event or situation) to happen or exist. For example, “An allergy can be triggered by stress or overwork.” There are a bunch of synonyms – precipitate, prompt, elicit, set off, spark, touch off, provoke, stir up, launch, lead to, set in motion, generate, start… to emphasize the point.

I acknowledge that there are people, places, and things that have potential to trigger someone to relapse. That is the worst-case scenario, but is the trigger the reason someone picks up and uses again? Does the trigger cause that event (relapse) to happen?

Or is it an excuse?

One of the blessings of recovery is to have choices. Today, when I am “triggered”,   I put myself through an entire process now, one where I don’t have to use a mind-altering substance to deal with the emotion.

I think the concept of triggering has been given too much power. How?

  1. Think about this simple concept – the more we talk about triggers, the more power we give them. When we discuss triggers, the focus shifts to relapse and away from recovery. Several decades ago, treatment latched on to the concept and many people did really well teaching about relapse prevention and triggers.  It is rarely discussed in most ongoing mutual aid recovery community meetings.
  2. People in recovery are not as fragile as the world makes us out to be. You do not need to walk on eggshells around people in recovery in fear that you may trigger him or her.  If I can’t handle a trigger, then that’s on me.  I believe in personal responsibility. I believe in personal power. I believe in one’s ability to identify triggers and respond accordingly.
  3. I believe in my Higher Power. If He leads me to it (a trigger), He will lead me through it. Faith overcomes fear.
  4. Treating people like resources means we have conversations that matter with them. We find out how to best support their recovery. They will know.  If we assume that something we may do or say may trigger them to the point of relapse, then we have little faith in the person’s ability to maintain their recovery. In essence, we have treated them like an object.
  5. People far underestimate a person struggling with addiction’s ability to manipulate. Often times, people go back out (use) and then blame the people, places, and things around them. They know full well that they made a decision to use. Sometimes people relapse because they want to. That’s described as the wake of destruction left in addicted people’s lives. Family members, friends, and allies are left holding the blame when it was not their fault.
  6. Learning to deal with emotion was a huge part of my recovery process. I now believe that learning to deal with emotion is a normal life process. People in recovery certainly do not have a corner on that market. Dealing with emotion is necessary for every human to live well. Throughout my recovery journey, I have welcomed strong emotional responses.  Throwing the trigger word out there serves as a barrier to these discoveries. Doesn’t mean I have always liked what I experienced, but I have welcomed them. This is when I have taken leaps in learning.  Know thyself.

I will be the first to acknowledge that these are some unpolished, unfinished thoughts. I have not carved them into stone in the caves of my mind. I am curious to see how my trigger thoughts evolve.

I have experienced that people seem fearful of sharing their truth, with people in recovery. They end up tiptoeing through a perceived trigger minefield unnecessarily.  I’m not saying people turn to brutal honesty either.

Be kind. Be gentle. Share your truth without blame or judgment. People respond to care.

Finally, triggers have as much power as you give them.  That choice is yours.

Phil “Right Click” Valentine
Recovery established 12.28.87

Phil Valentine
Phil Valentine

In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots. During all that time alone with my Creator, my purpose in life became more precisely defined. I am, simply, to coach recovery. Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life. I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in 1999. I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004. I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula. I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is a way for me to share things I have learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. I find that when I speak I present the same messages over and over. It’s time to write them down.

17 thoughts on “Trigger Thoughts”

  1. Very well presented my dear brother in recovery. I follow you faithfully and look forward to reading your positive words of wisdom, encouragement, knowledge and most importantly your profound recovery experiences.

  2. Tammy L. Emery

    Thank you for your words, causes one to pause and think about the realities of life helping to make it more concrete, my foundation more solid…

  3. Trigger such an interesting word and I believe strongly in the power of the written and spoken word —and it’s all about interpretation —accountability (another interesting word) to yourself in recovery that’s the goal …it’s a place of undeniable peace when you can trust yourself in any situation in your recovery ( with constant vigilance and Gods help) that is what we as recovery coaches should strive for ourselves and our Clients !

  4. Thanks Phil,
    Triggers or Triggering a memory is as simple as that. Early on in recovery I hadn’t done anything without alcohol or drugs in years. Certain people, places, events or other things, triggered memories of using, as they should have because every time I was with that person, in that place, at that event or doing that thing, I had been using. The important thing is to acknowledge that this will happen several time in my early days and years in recovery. The next important thing is to remind myself that I am in recovery today and that means that I choose not to use. The next important thing is to decide what I am going to do instead. A while ago I was sitting at a diner with my friend Derek and he said, “you know, the last time I was here I had breakfast, then I went down the street to cop and got high.” I responded, “the next time you are here, you are going to think, the last time I was here I was with Mike, and I had a really good talk on recovery.” Triggering memories is a fact of life, as we stay in recovery we make memories, that when triggered, bring smiles to our faces! Peace and Love!

  5. I really like your blog, Phil. We had the following quote on our whiteboard in our Recovery Cafe. “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” I agree that feeling our emotions is a part of a normal life, and we can build resilience as we learn how to do this better, even when, or especially when, it makes us uncomfortable. And we can choose FAITH or FEAR.

  6. John O. Schwartz

    I like the CBT term “activating event”. It’s about the beliefs we tend to associate these “events” that can (when left untended) lead to irrational thoughts (that’s where I convince myself that it’s ok to do just about anything). If I can create enough space to dispute these thoughts and replace them with something positive (all is fundamentally well) My emotional maelstrom wanes and passes. Sometimes I think that the “industry’s” fixation with “relapse prevention” can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s stay in the solution, huh?
    Thanks for another though-provoking essay.

  7. Master Chief John Urgayle: [quoting “Self-Pity” by D.H. Lawrence] I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A bird will fall frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.

  8. Patricia Chant

    I appreciated your thoughts and insights and agree for the most part. I do believe there are triggers such as a forgotten trauma or buried memory, however we can survive these as well without using if we don’t try to do it alone. I have seen many folks use, then play the blame game but I believe strongly in personal accountability. When they share the idea of blaming something or someone outside of them, I try to steer them toward owning that decision for themselves and then I pray that they come to terms with that and own it.

  9. This a great discussion. I like the idea of the term “triggers” being a negative that gives us “permission to relapse.” I use to walk/drive by a package store, my dealers corner/house, weould saw a beer/liquor commercial, got a whiff of weed at a concert, and I couldn’t help myself. For me, everything in my life was a trigger, because everything in my life was a reason to use. My life, reality, was more painful than the collateral damage caused by using; hang-overs, vomiting, arrests, internal bleeding, demolished cars lose of family, friends, spirituality. While in the throws of addiction, I was willing to live with the pain caused by these after affects. This pain was less than the pain I dealt with in the reality of my life, at the time. It was not until I learned put more pleasure and happiness into my “straight” life than was in the pleasure of “getting high”, that I was able to put down drugs and alcohol. Today, my triggers are for positive living. My wife, children, friends, and career trigger me to stay clean and sober. Perception is reality.

  10. I agree. Trigger is yet another word to latch onto that could prevent someone from personal growth. However, it is crucial as well that as recovery coaches we know how to deescalate an authentic triggered moment.

  11. Roman Barksdale

    I never thought of it quite like that regarding the word trigger. It reminds me that there are so many levels of maturity when it comes to recovery. As for me, the more I grow and mature in my recovery by way of managing my own mess and understanding the three legged stool triggers no longer have power over me. 10/05

  12. richard pacukonas

    Before psychologists invaded recovery, when no one ever heard of a “trigger,” and prior to the time when political correctness panicked the well-intentioned, Program sponsors kept it simple and called them what they were “one more cheap excuse.” It may sound hard, but so are tombstones.

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