Understanding Sexual Addiction Triggers

Posted on June 17th, 2014

Understanding Sex Addiction Triggers“Triggers” are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that set the addictive cycle in motion. If a sex addict can learn to identify his or her triggers and stop them in their tracks, that person has a chance to stay sexually sober. Unfortunately, anything that causes a sex addict to recall the (long-lost) pleasure of compulsive sexual behaviors can trigger the addiction cycle. This means that almost anything—not just external things (people, places, and events) but internal things (thoughts, feelings, and fantasies)—can prompt a desire to re-engage the addiction. 

Many triggers are easily spotted; others not so much. Obvious potential sex addiction triggers are things like running into an old hookup partner, getting a Victoria’s Secret catalog in the mail, or seeing an advertisement for a new “adult friend finder” smartphone app. Less apparent sex addiction triggers are things like feeling stressed out, getting into an argument with your spouse, or keeping something (anything!) a secret. It is important to note that not all triggers are negative in nature. Sometimes material successes and positive emotions evoke the desire to celebrate—i.e., a strong desire to act out sexually.

Once the desire to act out advances to the level of craving, the sex addict is in trouble. It should be noted that sex addiction cravings are not the same as a non-addicted person craving a bag of potato chips or a scoop of ice cream after a hard day at work. Instead, they are more like the need for air after holding your breath for a minute or more. This is true with other forms of addiction as well. For instance, an alcoholic being triggered toward a drink is not the end of the world, but if he/she nurtures that desire until it turns into a craving, then a relapse is likely to occur. In short, addiction cravings escape reason and logic. They are so powerful that they simply overwhelm and take control of the addict’s thought process. When cravings set in, it is extremely difficult to stop the addictive cycle.

The difficult part of sobriety is that triggers are unavoidable, regardless of your particular addiction. For instance, think about alcoholics driving past billboard ads for beer, scotch, and vodka. Think about drug addicts watching television crime dramas where the “perps” are selling or using drugs. Think about sex addicts going to a movie where the main character is incredibly attractive, or going to the mall and seeing lots of “hot” people, or taking the kids to soccer practice and running into an old flame, etc. In fact, think about any addict at all dealing with the rollercoaster of life and the emotions it induces. No matter how careful we are, we’re going to get hit with triggers, and if we’re not careful and alert and prepared, those triggers can easily escalate into cravings and relapse.

The worst part is that in the early stages of sobriety, when a recovering addict is most vulnerable to relapse, his or her visceral response to triggers gets stronger rather than weaker, meaning it’s actually harder to not relapse after 30 days than at three days. Compounding the situation is the fact that underlying psychological issues like anxiety and depression are likely to assert more and more as time away from the “self-medicating” effects of addictive behaviors increases. In fact, studies show that triggers and underlying issues are at their most powerful when addicts are between 30 and 90 days sober. On the plus side, after 90 days the odds of lasting sobriety begin to increase, and after a year the odds of maintaining long-term sobriety are actually quite good.

Needless to say, it is important for sex addicts to learn, as quickly as possible, what their most common triggers are, and also what they can do to counteract those triggers (before they lead into the slippery slope of sexual craving). The most effective therapeutic modalities for this are directive approaches focusing on the here and now, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), usually coupled with group therapy, social learning, 12-step meetings, and other sex addiction support groups.

Interestingly, 12-step sexual recovery programs learned how to counter sex addiction triggers long before the scientific and therapeutic communities figured it out. In 12-step meetings group members share their “experience, strength, and hope.” In so doing they create a perfect venue for combating both internal and external triggers. As one member of the group shares, others vicariously experience the emotional and/or contextual triggers the speaker is talking about, and then they do not act on those triggers. As this repeatedly occurs, many triggers lose their power, making them much less likely to cause cravings and relapse.

That said, no sex addict ever has his or her problem fully resolved. As the power of some triggers abates, new ones arise to take their place. Thus, sex addiction recovery is an ongoing process that can never be abandoned, just as recovery from other addictions can never safely be abandoned.

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