I Can’t Help It, I Was Triggered: How the Language of Powerlessness Can Inhibit Recovery from Addiction

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

The term I was triggered pushes responsibility onto others, empowerment is the key to recoveryWe know that self-efficacy is vital to successful recovery from addictive problems.  We know that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are cornerstones of depression.  We know that underlying issues like depression tend to fuel addictive problems.  Yet, mainstream addiction treatment continues to promote language that encourages and reinforces feelings of helplessness and an external locus of control, two things that are consistently associated with poor outcomes in the treatment of most mental health concerns.  Here, we will set our targets upon one of the most widely used and rarely questioned terms in addiction that reinforces feelings of helplessness, ‘triggers.’  


Encouraging an individual working to overcome addictive problems to identify triggers sounds like a good thing to do.  Once one identifies the causal factors  (aka triggers) to problematic use, then the identified causal factors can be avoided.  However, the problem is that inherent in the word ‘trigger’ is the implication of powerlessness.  Once the trigger on a gun is pulled, an irreversible process is set into motion and there is no getting that bullet back in the gun.  Thus, the use of the term trigger in addiction treatment suggests that once a person is triggered there is nothing to be done to stop the inevitable cascade down to the bottom of the booze bottle, or pill bottle, or meth pipe, or super sized French fry.  


When we acknowledge that the term ‘triggered’ implies that an irreversible process has been set into motion, and then recognize that it is truly and completely impossible to avoid all triggers forever, now we have a recipe for an inevitable recurrence of old behaviors.  Avoiding a favorite watering hole for awhile when not drinking is probably wise, but one will inevitably encounter an alcohol advertisement, or hear a cutting remark from a loved, or hear a favorite song from the party days on the radio, or lose a loved one.  Responding to so-called triggers differently is the essence of change.  The term ‘triggered’ outsources responsibility for one’s own behavior.  If I try to tell a judge that I couldn’t help but physically assault my co-worker because he triggered me, exoneration and acquittal are unlikely outcomes.


We live in an era of ‘trigger warnings,’ and there is genuine value in being considerate of others and their feelings.  However, people would do well to recognize that facing triggers and focusing on the only thing we have complete control over – our response – is the recipe for empowerment.  Empowerment is a cornerstone of wellbeing.  SMART Recovery encourages the use of the word ‘cue’ instead of ‘trigger,’ which is more accurate because events and circumstances prime humans to respond in conditioned ways but in no way force behavior.  Elimination of the term ‘trigger’ from the notoriously outdated lexicon of addiction terminology is unlikely.  However, for those interested in cultivating the self-efficacy widely agreed upon as vital to successful recovery from addictive problems, seeing triggers as opportunities to build empowerment and resilience is key to successful and sustained change.