The Silly Season is approaching and that means that there will be triggers aplenty for anyone – whether in recovery or not! Because everyone is triggered by situations all the time. It’s just how we cope with it that varies. Unacknowledged triggers that aren’t dealt with are more than likely to turn into urges and those are a whole lot more difficult to deal with. When we are triggered by what’s going on around us (good or bad) we immediately start to react rather than thinking and if this happens an Amygdala Hijack occurs. This means that instead of thinking clearly and rationally with the executive decision-making part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, we use the primal part of our brains to decide on our course of action. Basically we react to the situation using the last stored memory in the Hippocampus, and if the record of experiences tells the amygdala that it is a flight, fight or freeze situation then the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. That’s the scientific explanation and it’s all a little complex.
The idea is that we return to the last stored set of memories and we use these to respond to the situation. So however we dealt with these triggers previously will be our “go-to response”. The idea is that instead of simply reacting to a situation and allowing ourselves to be hijacked by the primal part of our brains, we actually take a moment to create self-awareness around the situation. Instead of freaking out when a family member pisses you off, and diving into the nearest punch bowl, the idea is to take a moment to think things through. As individuals with substance misuse disorders, our knee-jerk response to highly-charged situations is most likely to use! Our brains have learned that when we are threatened then we indulge in destructive behaviour. But we can retrain our brains to respond rationally rather than to simply giving into the trigger, allowing it to become an urge and possibly allowing this “hijack” to be an easy excuse for using or doing!
Triggers are everywhere…it’s what we do about them that determines our continued recovery! After time there is every possibility that new thoughts and behvaiours are in place, so that when your annoying _______ (insert family member here) starts to tick you off your reaction/response isn’t determined by the primal part of your brain, but with the area that is able to differentiate between conflicting thoughts, determine future consequences of current activities and exercise social control. Sure it’s tough to start with, but the more thinking that occurs when one is triggered, the easier it becomes to get out of that freaked out state and move forward, without resorting to harmful substances or behaviours to cope. Because drugs, alcohol and certain behaviours, whether bought legally or illegally, are all ways of dealing with pain. And pain comes in different forms, whether emotional, mental, spiritual or physical. And when we are in pain we often want to medicate, rather than look for healthy pain management options. We want the instant gratification of a “quick fix” rather than sticking to our long-term recovery and wellness plan.
And part of the long-term solution is learning to look at what causes us to be triggered and developing strong, adult coping skills to move forward without resorting to destructive reactions, whether these be substances or behaviours. And when the entire family (or parts thereof) is together over the holidays, possibly spending more time than normal together, there is a high likelihood that there is will challenging situations… I only have to think of what it’s like when my family is together to imagine the plethora of emotionally-charged interactions that can occur. But by taking a moment, maybe a few deep breaths, and trying to think calmly about what is going on, rather than slipping off to the nearest bar, is a far better choice (with a lot less fallout!!). By considering what it is about the situation that is causing your brain to want to want to resort to primal thinking and fight, flee or freeze, you’ll be in a far more empowered position to make decisions around what’s going on.
Little by little we can start to add new memories to the hippocampus so that our new set of stored (automatic) memories about dealing with potentially harmful situations are based in healthy, well-thought out ideas and coping skills. And this can be done consciously by putting new actions in place when the family holiday becomes less than relaxing. Instead of resorting to habitual patterns of behaviour, new thought patterns are developed. And next time that trigger situation arises, your new, healthy thought will be what you pull up. Of course this is a conscious exercise initially because you might find yourself denying the thought or bargaining with the idea. But I know from personal experience that being brave and courageous in these situations rather than giving in to the short-term relief of old practices, is going to bring far more joy in the long run.
Stop, think and decide what has caused the trigger. Don’t let your amygdala hijack the sensible, thoughtful part of your brain that can help you make grounded decisions about the outcome of something. Resorting to flight, fight or freeze probably won’t serve you tomorrow and there is every chance that if you give into the triggers and urges, you could wake up in the morning with a whole lot of feelings that you don’t want. And of course there’s the consequences of your actions too.
Developing healthy, enlightened thought patterns based on new experiences and learned coping skills, is a proactive method of dealing with those unwanted (and often unavoidable) triggers that crop up in our lives, no matter what time of year. Stop, think and respond…and have yourself a merry little Christmas!
Til next time,