In recovery, you hear a lot about triggers. These are essentially memories—feelings, places, people, or circumstances that remind you of your substance use.
Addiction and the Brain
Addiction affects the reward circuit in the brain, which normally gives you pleasurable feelings from healthy activities like eating, socializing, or listening to music. Dopamine plays a large role in addiction; while it’s often referred to as the “pleasure chemical,” it’s moreso involved in anticipating rewards. When you’re in recovery and you come across something that reminds you of substance use, your brain is wired to anticipate pleasure.
Getting Curious About Your Triggers
When memories of active addiction are triggered, I’ve found it helpful to see it as a learning experience. Try to pause and take note of what led to the thoughts. You might even write down where you are, who you’re with, and what thoughts and feelings preceded the memories.
This is useful information. It may help you avoid certain environments in the future. It can help ground you, and remind you that these thoughts didn’t just arise out of nowhere. Tracing them back to their trigger(s) can take away their power.
It’s human to romanticize aspects of the past, especially when it comes to cues from addiction. As you get more distance from active addiction, your view of it might become more realistic. On the flip side, time may erase or tone down the truly awful parts. When I’m feeling nostalgic about my substance use, sometimes I’ll write down all the negative things it brought to my life and how much I’ve gained from being sober.
It’s not always off-limits to indulge in memories or nostalgia. It can be fun to occasionally spend time with a happy memory. But if you’re stuck there, and those feelings make you wish you could still use substances, that can be miserable. It takes you out of the present and makes it difficult to remember why you’re sober. It’s important to balance out any memory from active addiction with a realistic assessment of what that whole time was actually like.
Active addiction is full of intense ups and downs, which can seem exciting in retrospect. But when you’re in that chaos, it typically just feels upsetting. While life in recovery often feels less chaotic, it will come with its own ups and downs. Sitting in your feelings without the blunting of alcohol or drugs is, in some ways, even more intense.
When memories from active addiction arise, try to bring in more realism. Also remind yourself that you have exciting times ahead in recovery—ones you will be present to remember.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for mental health disorders and addiction in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you make new happy memories in recovery. To learn more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.