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What's in the Space?

It's been a brutal year for so many people. And it's also been a very challenging year for anyway courageous enough to be starting their recovery process. Early recovery from the use of habit-forming substances and addictive behaviour disorders is a tricky, complex and uncertain time. Recovery is not simply about stopping the use of substances or walking away from a certain behaviour; it's about replacing these with healthier, more conscious lifestyle practices and choices.

One of the biggest stretches and new practices to develop in these early weeks, months and even years, is the ability to pause in the face of a trigger. Although "trigger" is a word often heard in recovery spaces, it is not something that is unique to those with substance use and mental health disorders, trauma or process addictions. It is something that happens to all of us, all the time, when our brain believes us to be under threat, at risk or in any type of danger. It's primal and unconscious, and it can be disastrous for someone who has a history of acting out through using or doing.

When you get triggered there is a complex set of reactions that unfold (rather quickly) that can lead to being in a state of flight, fight, freeze or fawn. But in this state, instead of being able to think, respond and make rational, reasonable choices, we start to react on memories stored in the hippocampus. I don't want this to become a neuro-lesson, but once we're in that reactionary, memory-based state, it's most likely that all bets are off and there is a habitual acting out which, when the memories are fresh, frequent and dopamine-rich, the individual isn't thinking and it's anyone's guess on how it all plays out.

I'm not justifying addictive, dysfunctional behaviour. I am not saying that there is nothing we can do. I am just sharing the information about what the process entails, and when it's a neural pathway and memory heavily associated with pleasure and reward. Then, the brain in a state of amygdala hijack (unless arrested), is going to make that pleasurable choice linked to escape, release, avoidance or attainment most times.

So what are the choices here? I am not one for the justification of "but I have a disease and there is nothing I can do about it" or "relapse is part of recovery". These are just that; ways to justify the behaviour and not implementing the tools and practices that we can learn when faced with situations that trigger us. In 2020 we are ordinarily not in danger off being attacked by a lion on the way to work, and the figure standing at our office door making loud, unidentifiable noises is probably not a bear. But because the amygdala does not process information, and was designed to keep us alive in the early times of human existence, it doesn't distinguish between traffic and lions, or bears and bosses. It simply initiates a chemical process to keep us alive.

Running from bosses, engaging in road rage, hiding under our dining room tables and rolling over like a puppy in the presence of an alpha are not really healthy adult choices that serve us in a modern world. So what do we do?

Quite simply, we learn to pause. Spiritual teachings, personal and professional development books, therapeutic and wellness practices, are full of work around learning to hit the pause button when we feel that we are triggered. A trigger most simply put is an emotional reaction to an internal or external stimulus, and what triggers us varies greatly from person to person. We often talk about triggers in terms of trauma, but the word is more recently also used in terms of mental health and substance use disorders. According to "a trigger is seen as anything that prompts an increase in or return of symptoms. For example, a person recovering from a substance use disorder may be triggered by seeing someone using their drug of choice. The experience may cause returned cravings and even relapse."

It's so important to learn to recognise the feeling of being triggered by something, and using practices that ensure we do not fully disconnect from our pre-frontal cortex, where our decision-making, problem-solving and executive thinking takes place. Instead of simply allowing the trigger to activate those stored memories of what we normally do in a difficult situation, one of the best practices to develop is simply learning to recognise the physical and emotional feelings that we experience, and then make a conscious effort to bring ourselves back into our minds and bodies, so that we teach ourselves to be more responsive and less reactive in these spaces.

When we are aware, conscious and present, we are better able to make decisions and choices that are supportive of our recovery and wellness. We are able to slow things down and make reasonable choices about how to proceed in a situation that our reptilian brain has identified as threatening. Running out of our homes, swearing at our partners, shouting at our children and having a bad day at work, then using these as the reasons to return to the use of substances are avoidable through the consistent practice of pausing. In his work, "Man's Search for Meaning" Viktor Frankl makes the famous, and very relevant statement, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

To respond to the people, places, things, situations, seasons, events and everything else that might be a personal trigger is a far better choice then simply allowing the trigger to play out. It's about empowering yourself and being a person who makes choices about their recovery, rather than slipping into the blame and justification that is so prevalent in "The Culture of Addiction" (William L. White, 1996). Learning to pause, whether through breathing, meditation, exercise, mindfulness, distraction or simply accessing your senses in order to reconnect with logic and reason, in the case of someone without a substance use disorder, can mean that they are calmer, more grounded and less likely to say or do something they shouldn't. These practices creates a stronger sense of self and are important elements of personal and professional growth. The failure to pause when it comes to a person who is in early recovery can simply be put as the difference between a life- and death decision.

In every slip or relapse exists the possibility that this time the body simply cannot endure the substances that are being imbibed. That our systems simply cannot ensure the shock, and that an overdose, stroke or heart attack are the result of a failure to slow down, pause and make some choices that are supportive of recovery and wellness. Another sobering thought is that about 58% of road deaths in South African can be attributed to alcohol consumption, according to the National Drug Master Plan (4th Edition 2019 to 2024, pg. 14).

Surely learning to pause in these spaces when we are angry, upset, agitated and anxious, and in others cases feeling in an exaggerated celebratory mood, is preferable? Fear doesn't keep us clean or well, neither do the consequences of others when we are reacting rather than responding. So it's all about the choices we make when we feel the heightened emotions and senses of being triggered.

I choose to pause. What is your choice?


For support with substance use and addictive behaviour recovery and support programmes, please feel free to visit my Recovery Coaching Page or connect with me on WhatsApp +27(67)903-0070.


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