How Feelings Become Triggers for an Addicted Mind

how feelings become triggersIf you or someone you know is struggling with some kind of addiction, chances are you’ve heard the term “trigger” before. What is a trigger? It’s anything that activates one’s desire to act on the addiction, whether that’s using cocaine, watching pornography, or throwing the dice at the craps table if you have a gambling problem.


Triggers are cues that, over time, the mind has learned are associated with something we really like. More on that in a minute. Often, they’re something really concrete. The sex addict may get triggered by yoga pants on an attractive woman. The alcoholic might get triggered by driving past his favorite bar. You get the idea. And so do those I help. When I ask about these sorts of triggers, most can rattle off at least a few with no problem.


Yes, Really: Feelings as Triggers

But sometimes, when I ask about any feelings that might be triggers, all I hear are crickets. “Uhhh . . . Well, maybe, er . . .” It’s a harder question, often because those who are really addicted are acting out or using to not feel their feelings. Curiosity about their emotional lives, something they’re tried hard to keep out of their minds, is a bit tougher.


Being aware of one’s feelings when engaging any habit is crucial because when we engage in any addiction or habitual practice, we’re doing so often without thinking about it. We react mindlessly, going on autopilot as we reach for our booze, our phones, our TV remotes, or whatever. Changing our habits and addictions requires us to engage mindfully instead of reacting mindlessly.


Let’s dig into how feelings become triggers to learn more.


Let’s Face It—We’re All Addicted to Something

Before we continue, let’s be clear: In an age where digital technology is all around us and the world is very literally at our fingertips through our devices, we’re all addicted to something.


I’m using this term loosely, of course; we may not be addicted to mobile games or social media in the true clinical sense of the term. That is, checking how many “likes” our Instagram photos have garnered and continuing to do so many not be creating havoc in our lives. But we sure are glued to our social media feeds these days. Or our TVs. Or those gaming apps, which are designed to be addictive.


My guess is that nearly all of us have some kind of habit that we routinely enjoy and that’s also pretty mindless. We may not be truly addicted, but we do feel the itch of wanting to check our most recent post, to check our email (again), or to see what that Instagram notification was about. And if we don’t, it can feel like an itch that won’t go away until we scratch it. Why?


How We Learn

Around the middle of the last century, psychology researcher B.F. Skinner described for the first time how we learn. He placed animals in cages that were rigged with some kind of escape mechanism (a lever, a pressure pad they’d step on, etc.). He rewarded them with a treat when they figured out how to escape. Over time, they learned to associate using the mechanism with a reward.


We learn in a similar way. When you get hungry, for instance, your brain say, “Hey, I’m hungry. Let’s eat something.” That prompts you to look for food. You find some chocolate and eat it. Your brain tells you that the chocolate made you feel better. It also remembers where you got it so that you can eat that again.


What happened? There was a trigger—hunger—that prompted you to look for food—a behavior—that resulted in you finding your Snickers—a reward.

Trigger  =>  Behavior  =>  Reward


Each time you eat chocolate and give yourself this reward, you reinforce your behavior. So, the more chocolate you eat, the more triggered you’re going to feel when you see a Snickers in the checkout lane at the grocery store. In a flash, you crave it. You have to have that reward. You’ve learned that you have to.


How Feelings Become Triggers: Feeling Better through iPhone Games, Chocolate, or Heroin

You’ve also learned through continual reinforcement not only that chocolate tastes pretty good, but that eating chocolate can help you feel better too. And not just less hungry.


When we do anything pleasurable, our brains release a kick of dopamine—a delicious chemical that makes us feel fantastic. Chocolate. Sex. Even listening to a song we love. Anything pleasurable will send dopamine our way. And dopamine makes us feel better.


If we eat enough chocolate and continue to reinforce this habit, something happens. When we feel sad, lonely, or anxious, your brain says, “Hey, I don’t like feeling this way. I know something that will help us feel better.” Cue the craving to eat chocolate. Or binge-watch Netflix. Or check your Facebook feed. Or watch pornography. Whatever it is that we’ve learned will help us feel good, our brain says, “Do that.”


Self-Medicating: Using Habits to Manage from Our Feelings

The more we engage in our mood-altering habits, the more we use them to change how we feel. When we feel anything unpleasant, we go to our go-to habit to provide us with comfort. When this behavior gets out of control and we keep doing it despite adverse consequences, that’s addiction.


The more we use our habits to help us feel better, the more detached we become from our emotional lives, and the harder it can be to know what’s going on with us inside. That’s why people who struggle with addiction have real trouble knowing what they’re feeling; often they may not be aware that they feel much at all.


Changing Our Habits Using Mindfulness

Mindfulness? What’s that? Jon Kabat-Zinn, a therapist and mindfulness expert, defines mindfulness this way: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It’s turning inward to carefully attune to what is happening in our bodies, with our emotions, our thoughts—our inner lives, without trying to change anything.


In this way, though not without some effort, we can learn that when we have a craving to indulge our habit, we can rediscover the feelings (however unpleasant they may be) that are triggering us to want what we want.


When this happens, we become able to act with intention and agency: The craving has less power over us because we understand that it’s trying to help us manage emotional pain. To not feel what we hadn’t wanted to feel before. We can learn to bear out the craving while paying mindful attention to the feelings we feel, because we’re getting better at managing our feelings without our habit’s help.


What about you? Are there any habits that you might want to change? What role is the habit in your life playing, and how might you engage that habit differently? I’d love to hear any thoughts you’re having! Feel free to email me at

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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