Activating Events, Cues or Triggers


Melissa Killeen

[This is the third in a series of short posts about my interactions with recovery coaching clients. I want to share what happens during a recovery coaching engagement, the discussions that take place, what usually comes up for the client and how as a recovery coach I respond. In this post, I am still working with the client who relapsed.]

This month, a very well-known actor fatally overdosed on a “speedball,” a hazardous intravenous mix of cocaine and heroin or morphine, blended in and delivered from a single syringe. My client’s drugs of choice were speedballs, and so it was only natural when he talked about how he read absolutely everything about this actor, every newspaper article, listened to every radio broadcast and even bought People magazine to read about him.

This prompted a further discussion about “triggers.” As a result of this conversation my client began to understand and practice stimulus control. He realized (correctly) that as addicts we cannot change the “activating events,” cues or triggers that precede a relapse but we can change how we react to them. So, we don’t listen to the radio broadcast for the fifth time, or purchase People magazine. We click off the television in our mind as well as the TV in our living room and escape these triggers.

People, places and things—Some triggers we can avoid, like driving past that strip club, or hanging out at a neighborhood bar, drinking club soda.  We learn to accept the things that can’t be changed, like the death of this actor. They can cue you, but they don’t have to rule you.

I suggested that my client avoid the news altogether, for one month. No more CNN ceaselessly playing in the background. The morning paper left unread. A test, if you will, to see if this small attempt at stimulus control would work.

As a substitute for the news, I suggested he select a “”valued direction” to fill its void. As we all know, if you take something away, something else must take its place. Fortunately, my client loves cooking. Since coming home, he has taken on the responsibility of making dinner for his girlfriend and son. I suggested that he really get into cooking, to view it as an opportunity, in part, that would help him realize a goal of developing a balanced life with healthy indulgences and activities that can substitute for undesirable addictive behaviors. Now, along with turning off CNN, he is planning meals for the week, creating recipes and shopping daily for fresh organic ingredients. As it turns out, he is going beyond just dinner. As of late, he has begun each day packing his girlfriend’s lunch from the previous night’s leftovers.


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