Addiction Triggers

By: Archibald Hart, Ph.D.

Category: Helps

The two major drives that underlie the addictive process, excitement seeking and tension reduction, are often "set off" by a particular starting stimulus. We can call this the "trigger mechanism" for the addiction. It is the emotion or occurrence that starts a given cycle of addictive behaviour.

Let's imagine that Dave, a fictitious salesman, is generally bored with his job, but he loves to ski. Skiing is the only source of real excitement in Dave's life; he lives for the snow slopes and dreams about nothing else. Clearly he is an addict because he neglects every other aspect of his life.

Now, say it is Friday morning. Dave usually spends Fridays in the office writing up orders and processing his paperwork. This is a part of his job he particularly hates. Every form, letter, and purchase order is like poison to him; he even dislikes touching them.

Dave checks his watch. Nine-thirty in the morning. Still six and a half hours to go before quitting time. He tries to concentrate, but the dull routine of his job acts as a stimulus for his addictive need. Boredom is the trigger for his addiction craving. He wants to be on the mountain. He wants to feel the cold chill of the wind and hear the swoosh of the skis. He checks his watch again. Only 9:50. The more bored Dave becomes, the more he craves his skiing fix. It's going to be a long day!

Trigger mechanisms like Dave's boredom begin the addictive craving for a given cycle of need. They differ from person to person and from addictive behaviour to addictive behaviour. Often the roots of these trigger mechanisms can be traced to experiences we disliked as a child. Here are some common triggers:

  • anxiety

  • isolation

  • boredom

  • depression

  • crises

  • sense of failure

  • unmet sexual needs

  • criticism

  • selfish needs

The last of the above list, selfish needs, is a major trigger for many addictions. Technically known as "polarized narcissism," it is usually found in people who have suffered from early life disruption or damage and whose nurturance and dependency needs have not been met. Such people often develop a deep desire for instant gratification. They know where, when, and how they want it, and they want it now! For instance, they demand instant and excessive affirmation for even small attempts at work or in relationships. The needs of others never enter the picture. They are focused only on their own needs.

There are many other possible triggers for addictive behaviour. In fact, anything that threatens failure, rejection, or abandonment can become a stimulus for an addiction cycle. Add to this the personality traits of passivity, under-assertiveness, or dependency, and you have a powerful set of addictive triggers.

Copyright © 2002 Archibald Hart. Used by permission.

Michael Moll