Sex Addiction: Understanding “Triggers”

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Edwin is the 47-year-old CFO of a hardwood flooring wholesaler. He has been in recovery for both sex and drug addiction for more than a year—entering therapy after his wife found out he’d been cheating on her with several female coworkers, strip clubs, and prostitutes, and that he was usually drinking and doing cocaine at the same time. Though Edwin lives in the suburbs, his office is in the industrial section of town, and any even remotely convenient route to work takes him directly past at least one or two strip clubs and numerous street corners frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes. Most days he does not even think about the strip clubs, drug dealers, or prostitutes when he’s driving past them, but sometimes, if he and his wife have been arguing, or he’s had a hard day at work, or he’s feeling frustrated for some other reason, he simply can’t stop thinking about these temptations. On two different occasions, he has “slipped” on his way home from work, once “finding himself” drunk and high in a strip club, another time “ending up” in the back seat of his car with a prostitute. And he can’t understand why he has these moments of weakness when he’s working so hard to heal from his addiction.

Triggers are thoughts and feelings that induce the strong desire to engage in an addiction. A few of Edwin’s triggers, in the example above, are fighting with his wife, driving through the dicey neighborhood near his workplace, and feeling frustrated for any reason. As is the case for most addicts, when Edwin is sufficiently triggered he becomes powerless over his sexual addiction. This is most apparent in the language Edwin uses to describe his slips, such as “finding himself” in a strip club and “ending up” in the back seat of his car with a prostitute. That is very different wording than “deciding” or “choosing” to do something.

For addicts, almost anything—items both internal and external—can be a trigger.

  • Internal triggers involve emotional discomfort.
  • External triggers can be people, places, things, and/or events.

Addicts must also deal with intertwined triggers (triggers that are both external and internal). For example, if Edwin argues with his wife or has a bad day at work (an external trigger), he is likely to experience emotional discomfort (an internal trigger), with both triggers causing a desire to act out sexually. And this desire may be exacerbated by visual triggers (driving past strip clubs, prostitutes, and drug dealers).

Interestingly, not all triggers are negative in nature. Sometimes material successes and positive emotions will evoke a desire to celebrate, and thus a desire to drink, use drugs, act out sexually, etc.

A few of the more common internal triggers for sexual addiction are:

  • An unmet need for validation and/or affection
  • Unresolved resentments and anger
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Shame (feeling useless, worthless, and/or unlovable)
  • Stress
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Sadness or grief

A few of the more common external triggers for sexual addiction are:

  • Unstructured time alone
  • Travel (especially alone)
  • Relationship breakups
  • Unexpected life changes (job, finances, etc.)
  • Unexpected losses or tragedies
  • Highly stimulating positive experiences
  • Drug and/or alcohol use
  • Unexpected exposure to sexual stimuli (i.e., a Victoria’s Secret catalog, a sexy billboard, driving by a strip club, seeing a prostitute, encountering an attractive person, etc.)
  • Arguments
  • Reprimands
  • Financial insecurity
  • Trouble within the family (like a child struggling at school)
  • An emotionally or physically unavailable spouse

Both lists of triggers could be extended ad infinitum. Almost anything can be a trigger for sexual addiction. Even memories of past traumas can be present-day triggers. For instance, if Edwin’s boss looks at one of his coworkers crossly, this might remind Edwin of his alcoholic father, creating emotional discomfort—fear, anger, shame, and the like—and he will therefore be triggered, even though his boss’s expression is unrelated to him in the present moment.

Unfortunately, triggers are unavoidable. 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 all the attractive people (potential sexual partners) that a sex addict sees on a regular basis. Then think about any addict at all dealing with the rollercoaster of life and the emotions it induces. Triggers are everywhere, and there is nothing that addicts can do about that fact beyond learning to recognize and deal with them in healthy ways.