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Don’t Pull the Trigger: Cognitive Structuring Leads to Addiction

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Don’t Pull the Trigger: Cognitive Structuring Leads to Addiction

We’ve all heard the ignorant line dripping with condescension, “Oooh, poor baby, was that a trigger for you? Grow up and deal with it! The real world isn’t obligated to protect your little snowflake feelings.”

Triggers - Cognitive Structuring Leads to Addiction

Triggers are Misunderstood

Usually these words are coming from the mouths (or more likely, anonymous keyboards) of people who have never experienced real trauma, or had to “get over” their trauma outside of a clinical setting. We will start off by saying the hostility is due to ignorance in the former case, and is understandable in the latter case. It’s not easy to heal psychological scars on your own. The injustice of not getting help can make some feel cheated, so the natural response is to say “suck it up like I did.”

There are two logical fallacies at work in these responses, sometimes concurrently.

‘I’ve never experienced trauma’

But I know what hardship is like

False Equivalent

Traumatic experiences make the brain release different electrical impulses than hardship, so to compare them is false equivalency.

Normal hardship and real trauma are not the same thing. Yes, the two share similarities. But think about it: working a crappy job and being beaten by one’s father as a child do not affect a person the same way. All experiences create different hormonal and neurological reactions that change a person’s core brain chemistry.

‘I have trauma history too’

And I turned out just fine

Anecdotal Fallacy

Using one isolated example to disprove neurological science is an anecdotal fallacy.

Trauma recovery is not a contest, nor should it be. A person’s psychological scars should NEVER be downplayed. Period. Those who “sucked it up” definitely deserve credit for their resourcefulness and bravery. At the same time, that credit does NOT nullify the ones who were not able to “suck it up” on their own.

All people are born with different support systems and natural faculties. Since those mitigating factors are not a choice, the ability to “suck it up” is not an entirely transferable skill. Lack of empathy for the “have nots” is unhelpful, cruel, and frankly does all trauma survivors injustice.

Cognitive Structuring

So what exactly IS a trigger? To answer that, a little lesson in brain chemistry is in order. The most important thing to understand is that the human brain is incredibly adaptive. Every experience a person goes through causes the brain to send very specific electrical impulses in response, and the resulting fallout actually carves physical pathways in your noggin over time. That’s not an opinion, it’s a medical fact:


Because we develop social anxiety over time (although some people feel it hits them all at once), the brain is learning how to be socially anxious — this is cognitive structuring.  The brain learns how and what to be afraid of.  If you’re afraid of a certain event, and this event triggers your anxiety, then the neurons in your brain fire together, and over time, they wire together. *

* Social Anxiety comes from neural pathways: Read More

That means that every time a father hits his daughter, her brain is physically carving fear into itself. This is because her growing brain has evolved to adapt to its environment. Conversely, every time the father next door hugs his daughter lovingly, her brain physically carves security into itself.


Fast forward twenty years. Both of these daughters are grown and watching the news. Suddenly a surveillance video shows NFL running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator, then dragging her unconscious body through a parking lot. Now zoom into each woman’s brain chemistry: the scenes are completely different.

The first woman’s brain recognizes a familiar stressor. The fear floods in as a natural response, and she no longer feels secure. She may seek substances to alleviate the threat of danger.

The second woman’s brain does not recognize the scene as a real threat. “Sure, this happens to other people, but not me.Life goes on.

Triggers Lead to Addiction

This neurological reaction triggers not only fear, but eventually a desire to seek relief as well. There is only so much stress the body can handle before it becomes a perceived threat to survival that needs to be eliminated. This is similar to how weight lifters start to yawn when they don’t breath deeply enough during reps. Just like muscles need oxygen to function, the body can’t sustain high levels of adrenaline, glutamate, and other chemicals released by fear.* When this happens, heuristics start to kick in, and problematic short term solutions (like substance use) start to seem less problematic.

Naturally over time, this can foster addiction as a person continually resorts to substances in response to psychological stressors. That is why it is crucial to create an environment with as few triggers as possible. The same applies to addicts already in recovery as well to avoid relapse.

* The Chemistry of Fear: Read More

De-Weaponizing Triggers Safely

The safest way to handle triggers is to avoid them altogether, or minimize your exposure to them as much as possible. Pay attention to things in your life that continue to create stressful reactions, and consider ways to eliminate or minimize these encounters. Below are some examples of effective ways to handle trigger situations:

For those unfamiliar, ghosting is when a person stops responding to texts and phone calls with no notice or explanation.

When this happens, remember: they have their own crap going on! They’re imperfect humans and were probably just too immature to end it responsibly. It’s not a reflection on your worth. NEVER internalize betrayal from another person! Instead, call up your friends. Good platonic friends are not in it for themselves, so they’ll probably be happy to remind you of what that ghosting d-bag missed out on.

Take advantage of DVR’s magic: fast forward through that crap. It might be best to stop watching the show altogether. That type of violence tends to be recurring in narratives.

Be open with them about your feelings. Avoid accusations. They are probably not aware of your feelings, and will be horrified that they upset you that way. If not, you should seriously re-evaluate the health of this person and of your relationship with them.

Depending on how long the discussion lasts, you can: look over your previous notes instead, wander your eyes around the room and drown the words out with your own thoughts, or take a restroom break.

If appropriate, consider offering your firsthand input for everyone. It may spark a real dialogue that will help you and others.

If you or a loved one is having problems with triggers in addiction, call our admissions staff to learn about treatment options: 855-737-7363

Posted in Addiction, Culture, Health and Wellness, Relapse, Trauma