Attention, Stress, and Triggers: What’s the Connection?

If you’re in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder, you’ve learned all about triggers. In plain language, triggers are things you see, hear, or feel that make you want to drink or use drugs. In slightly less plain language, triggers are environmental stimuli that elicit patterns of thought, emotion, or behavior related to alcohol or substance use. Triggers can take many forms, and they’re slightly different for everyone.

A trigger can be something obvious. For instance, for someone living with an alcohol use disorder, a trigger may be a television commercial that features people drinking beer. A trigger can also be something less obvious, like a landmark at certain intersection you drive through on the way home from work.

The one where, if you turn right, you go to the bar, and if you go straight, you go home.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes it’s easy to ignore that landmark, head straight through the intersection, and go home?

Have you also noticed that at other times, it takes every ounce of your being – and every coping mechanism you learned in treatment – to ignore the trigger, head straight through the intersection, and go home?

A group of scientists in Australia recently completed an experiment that may offer clues as to why it’s easy to ignore triggers on some days, and difficult on others.

Attention and Stress: How it Works

Your brain is a complex organ. It’s made up of systems of neurons – a.k.a. brain cells – that work in synchrony all day, every day, to control both the conscious and the unconscious processes you need to make it through the day. The brain controls your heart, your digestion, and your breathing – three examples of things that happen under the radar every moment you’re alive. The brain also controls how you process information, prioritize information, and make decisions based on that information – three examples of things that don’t necessarily happen every moment you’re alive, but do happen all day every day.

When you’re busy completing an important task, the part of the brain that keeps you on track and focused is your executive function network. One crucial function the executive function network performs is suppressing information from the environment that distracts you from completing the important task you’re engaged in. The executive network is powerful: it can ignore information from the environment that’s attached to rewarding experiences, such as food, and – the part that’s relevant to our discussion – things like alcohol or drugs.

It suppresses those signals so you can complete your important task.

However, when your executive function network becomes overloaded, something happens: its ability to suppress cues related to rewarding experiences deteriorates.

What can overload your executive function network?

Stress.

Most of us know this through experience. When you’re under stress, it’s more difficult to focus. For instance, at the end of a long, tough day at work, ignoring a social media notification on your phone is harder than when you arrived, fresh and focused, at work that morning. Your eyes wander, your mind wanders, and you find yourself checking the social media feed instead of finishing the spreadsheet you were working on.

Triggers, Stress, and Executive Control

What does all this have to do with triggers?

Everything.

Let’s combine the examples above to explain.

You’re completing a task: in our first example, you’re driving home from work. It’s important for your recovery to get home, have a good dinner, and go to a community support meeting.

In our second example, you’re completing a spreadsheet at work. It’s important to finish before you leave for the day, because your boss wants to read it first thing in the morning.

In both examples, your executive function network keeps you on task. Then – in both examples – an environmental cue related to a reward competes with the task at hand for your attention. In our first example, the landmark at the intersection – the one related to drinking – vies for your attention. In the second, the social media alert icon – the one related to the pleasurable experience of your friends liking or commenting on a post – vies for your attention.

On a typical, low-stress day, everything goes right. In example one, you ignore the alcohol-related cue, cruise through the intersection, and go home. In example two, you ignore the social media cue, keep your eyes on the spreadsheet, and finish it up before the end of the day.

Stress Changes Your Brain

On a stressful day, however, things are different. Stress taxes your executive function network, compromising its ability to suppress the reward-related cues in favor of the task at hand, even when that task is important – like getting home for dinner or fulfilling your work responsibilities.

So: what happens?

On a stressful day at work, you might drop your work on the spreadsheet in favor of checking social media. Depending on your boss, that may or may not be a huge deal.

On a stressful day during recovery from an alcohol use disorder, though, you may decide not to go home for dinner, but instead take that turn and drive to the bar. That’s a choice that can lead to relapse, which is a very big deal.

We’ll admit that sometimes articles like this – reports about the latest science research news on addiction – are not always easy to connect to your recovery experience. This one, however, is not like that at all.

The connection is crystal clear: if you’re having a stressful day, be aware that you’re more vulnerable to your triggers than on a non-stressful day. That could mean – in example two – taking a different route home from work. It could mean avoiding people who push your buttons, avoiding television because of the commercials, or something else – that all depends on you and your triggers.

You may know all this through experience already. Many people in recovery know triggers are more powerful when they’re under stress.

Now there’s proof that this phenomenon is not a character flaw or a lack of willpower: it’s how your brain is wired.