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Lesson 2: Triggers and Arousal

Last week, we learned about the various stages in the Cycle of Addiction. Rituals (stage 4) can be subtle and often go undetected for many women. It is important to recognize that our rituals are initiated when we feel triggered and our limbic system is activated. Think of a trigger as a “flashback.” It can be almost anything. Some common triggers include:

• Emotions: loneliness, rejection, disappointment, pain, shame, boredom
• Songs
• A specific person
• Smells
• A movie or TV show
• Financial anxiety
• Criticism
• A car: reminds you of a specific time and place
• A place
• Stress
• A person’s body type, hair style, or personality

As we learned in chapter 4, whatever triggers us, captures our attention and creates a bump in our awareness: it creates a jolt that focuses our thoughts on a previous experience. This jolt—our trigger—can be positive or negative, putting into motion a process of preoccupation and fantasy. When we are triggered by a painful memory, we use preoccupation and fantasy to make the pain go away—most common for those of us who struggle with love addiction.

When we are triggered by a pleasurable memory, we become preoccupied with good feelings—most common for those of us who struggle with sex addiction. If we have used our computer for sexual activity, we may not recognize how even turning on the computer, the sound it makes and the anticipation it creates, can be a trigger.

This can be a confusing process. We may feel “suddenly” aroused, but cannot understand why. As we continue to pursue health, we will discover that underneath our triggers lies a foundation of emotional pain that was buried by our compulsive and addictive behaviors.

“The main role of addiction is to push away unwanted thoughts, feelings, and memories from our conscious awareness.78

I grew up in a supportive and loving Christian home. I was very independent and really not interested in my looks or boys until I turned 12 years old. At this point, I began to recognize how good it felt to get attention from boys. This consumed my thoughts. Before I turned 14, I started a relationship with a guy who was a few years older and I knew he was not someone I should be hanging around. My parents did not approve, but I didn’t care. I was so drawn to the feeling I got when I was with him. I had never felt anything like it.

I put all my time and energy into thinking about this guy and seeing him when I could. He told me how much he loved me, wrote poems for me, and really cared about me. I wasn’t ready to have sex with him, but I know he wanted it. After six months, I discovered that all the emotional energy I was putting into this relationship was for nothing. He was saying the same things, writing the same poems, and going out with two other girls at the same time. I was devastated. I tried to move past the pain but subconsciously vowed to never let myself get hurt like that again. Even though it seemed like a little thing, being led on, manipulated, and lied to for so many months changed me. I felt insecure and struggled with low self-esteem. I had suffered emotional abuse.

Shortly after that relationship ended, I went on to another relationship, and another, and another—all the way through college. I was never without a boyfriend, sometimes dating more than one guy at a time. I never let any guy break up with me and always made sure to have control of the relationship. These relationships were not healthy—physically, sexually, and emotionally. Many of my relationships were manipulative and emotionally abusive. I was so drawn to and aroused by the feelings of love and connection that it didn’t matter if the relationships were unhealthy or even unsafe. Ultimately, the patterns of emotional abuse created excessive damage to my self-worth and emotional awareness, driving me further into love and sex addiction.


In order to recognize why we are feeling triggered, it can be helpful to work through a past situation, walking it out backwards. First, we need to identify our most common form of acting out—it may not be a serious sexual sin, but a behavior that is prevalent or that we consider relapse: angry outbursts, binge eating, isolating, shopping, overspending, misuse of social media, and more.

Next, we need to identify what was happening before we acted out: events, moods, behaviors, and interactions with others. Our weekly FASTER Scale may be helpful in this process. We need to continue to work backwards until we can isolate the trigger, the moment that initiated a chain of events leading to our ritual and ultimately, acting out.

We cannot always avoid feeling triggered, but when we are self-aware, we can control our ritualistic behaviors. Once we recognize how and why we engage in certain behaviors, we can stop the progression that leads to acting out.

For many of us, we recognize when we are feeling triggered by what is happening in our current environment, but we fail to understand why we are so significantly impacted by the situation. Our behavior is often the result of past trauma and abuse. We react to what is happening in front of us, but our limbic brain—the emotional center of the brain—is combining the feelings of a similar past experience with our current experience. This is why, sometimes, our reaction doesn’t match the situation.

None of us wants to believe we were abused. Even as we hear the word “abuse,” we imagine the worst case scenario of physical or sexual violence. But what comes to mind when we use the following definitions?

  • Use for a bad purpose or to effect badly; misuse.
  • Treat with intentional cruelty, regularly or repeatedly.
  • Use or treat in a way that causes damage or harm.
  • Speak to or about in an insulting or offensive way. If we use the above criteria to define abuse, how many of us would admit to being the victim of abuse? How many of us would begin to develop a new perspective or expand our awareness regarding the abuse we sustained in our past?

The point of identifying past abuse is not to blame anyone or allow ourselves to live in a victim state. Instead, the goal is to gain a realistic view of our past—how it contributes to and shapes our relationships.

Using the Abuse Inventory will help raise awareness to the various ways we have experienced abuse in our past. Facing the truth about our past can feel unnerving, but it is a necessary part of our healing.


Within each category, check any statement that has ever been true for you throughout your lifetime. Then, place a “P” next to any statement that is currently true for you.

While it is true that many of us have sustained some form of abuse, we don’t have to remain the victim. In the safety of this group we can face our past, identify where we have been wounded by others, and continue to move toward restoration and health.

Looking Ahead

Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting.