I’ve yet to meet a partner who didn’t experience triggers of some kind. Triggers can come out of nowhere and hit you when you least expect.
What are triggers?
A trigger is any experience of a person, place, or thing that reminds you of the betrayal, discovery, or disclosure you’ve experienced.
Triggers are highly activating — both emotionally and physically. Triggers can create fear, shame, anxiety, and even panic.
Partners can feel triggered by the facial expression of the addict, an article of clothing, another person with a specific set of physical or personal characteristics, a place, or a song. There are no limits to what a trigger can be. They are very personal and a direct result of certain memories and past experiences.
Having triggers is one area where partners and addicts have parallel experiences. Addicts get triggered in a variety of situations. Sometimes what triggers partners also triggers addicts.
It’s important to note that no one or no “thing” is inherently a trigger. Addicts sometimes say, “she’s a trigger,” or “that triggered me.” This is a thought distortion. The reality is that we feel triggered when we see certain people, places, or things. But in and of themselves, they are not triggers.
We get triggered by what our mind does with incoming data.
This is an important concept for partners as well as addicts. For example, the adult bookstore you drive by every time you go to the airport may be a powerful trigger for you now. When you see it, you may think you’re inadequate because you can’t “compete” with the porn the sex addict looked at when he was acting out. You may feel assaulted, panicked, or enraged.
However, in several years you may not even notice it’s there. In fact, you may drive past the bookstore in the future and think, “what a sad, miserable place.” You may even feel compassion for the pain of those inside, or you may pray for them because you’re keenly aware of the dark, secret life they’re likely leading.
But that’s probably not where you are today — and for good reason. The point is to notice that the kinds of thoughts you have about triggers makes a difference in the emotions you feel and how you respond.
Triggers are normal and to be expected in early discovery and disclosure.
Although they do lessen over time, they can happen at a moments notice — even decades after discovery. The good news is that they aren’t as activating or painful as they are early on.
Here are 6 steps to tame triggers:
- Know your triggers. Start noticing what triggers you. Magazines in the check-out line of the grocery store, billboards, sexually oriented business, TV programs, and movies are some of the most common. Make a list of all your triggers and rate them on a scale of 1-5 — 5 being the most powerful or activating.
- Minimize or eliminate the triggers you have control over. Once you’ve identified what triggers you, see if you can eliminate or minimize them. For example, if you drive by a sexually oriented business every day on the way to work, can you go a different route? If you get triggered nearly every time you watch an R-rated movie with sexual content, take a break for awhile and watch G-rated movies or read that book you’ve been meaning to.
- For triggers you can’t minimize or eliminate, identify the thoughts you have when you encounter them. This is an excellent exercise for any trigger, but especially those over which you have no power to eliminate. For example, if you’re feeling triggered by someone you work with because they have the same physical characteristics as one of the addict’s affair partners, notice the thoughts you have about her/him or the situation. You may think, “How could my partner want to be with me? I don’t look anything like her,” or, “She’s so much more attractive than I am.” These thoughts will create pain, shame, and fear in you.
- Correct thought distortions. If you’re having thoughts that magnify the trigger and create pain, begin to generate other thoughts. If you’re asking, “How could my partner want to be with me?” the truth is, your partner IS with you. And if you’re comparing yourself to the other person, you have made yourself (and the other person) an object. Remind yourself that your worth is not determined by your appearance or any other external characteristic.
- Use thought stopping. Much like an addict’s Three Second Rule for avoiding objectification, when you find you’re overwhelmed by or dwelling on triggers, practice Alert-Avert-Affirm. Alert means you’re aware you’re engaged in the behavior. Avert encourages you to refocus on something else. Affirm encourages you to say an affirmation, prayer, or mantra that diverts your attention away from the trigger. Claim your inherent worth with affirmations such as, “I’m enough and I matter,” or, “I’m a child of God,” or any other message that helps you remember who you are.
- Practice excellent self-care. Self-care is one of the best ways to minimize the impact of triggers. When your needs for rest, nutrition, movement, and spiritual practice are met, you will be less impacted by triggers when they happen. Find at least 2-3 nurturing, self-care practices you enjoy — body work, yoga, meditation, spiritual practice, journaling, or exercise — and engage in them as often as you can. Whatever quiets your mind and calms your nervous system is perfect.
Triggers are inevitable — what you do with them makes all the difference.
What are your triggers? Write them down, and discuss them with someone in your support circle — mentor, therapist, sponsor, or friend.
© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2015)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.