If you have ever sought help for any form of problematic substance use, you’re familiar with the concept of triggers. For anyone not familiar, a trigger can refer to anything that either generates a certain thought or feeling, or that seems to lead directly to a particular behaviour. For example, somebody who struggles with alcohol may notice that everytime they have a video call with a certain relative of theirs, they find themselves having a strong urge to pour themselves a glass of wine.

The impact of triggers isn’t restricted to substance use. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes, and can be associated with all sorts of different moods and behaviours. You may notice that each time your partner says a certain phrase to you, you become irritated. Or, maybe when you see a particular room in your house in disarray you feel frustrated at the apparent lack of consideration. Maybe you feel overcome by anxiety when you hear the latest sound clip from a political leader who you disagree with?

Often, these triggers are nothing more than a normal, and healthy, reaction to an experience we’ve had. Over time, however, our brains and bodies begin to develop increasingly stronger associations between the external trigger and the following internal reaction, until we can start to feel like passengers in our own lives. In many cases it can be important to explore – often alongside the assistance of a professional therapist – some of the routes of these triggers. If you would like to discuss triggers, or other issues surrounding confidence or anxiety, I’d be happy to talk about it. In the interim though, there is plenty that you can do to make your own life a little bit more pleasant.

By first identifying some of your triggers you may quickly notice that certain uninvited emotions arrive fairly predictably, and that by making some small changes you can navigate around them. Creating boundaries about what sorts of news you digest (and when) might be all that’s required to ease a tremendous amount of suffering. Having (often difficult) conversations with loved ones about communication expectations might stop conflict before it starts. Even sitting in a different seat can change how much you crave a certain type of food or alcoholic drink. So, what triggers can you adjust to reduce unnecessary suffering in your life, and the lives of your loved ones?

Harnessing Triggers

Not all triggers are harmful. Contrary to what it might seem like at times, our brains don’t deliberately set out to sabotage us, they simply interpret what they experience, and send us signals accordingly. We can use this to our advantage.

Is there a certain song that motivates you to exercise? A particular outfit that generates a feeling of confidence you when you wear it? Maybe there’s a passage in a holy book or a quote from a philosopher, athlete, or business magnate that resonates so deeply with you that you are immediately inspired to change the world when you read it! Or, your triggers may be more subtle. Drinking a glass of water or stretching in the morning may serve as a reminder to yourself that you are important, and worth taking care of.

One trigger that makes a big difference for me is nutrition. A single healthy meal is frequently all it takes for me to break-free of any sort of sluggish malaise I may be feeling (often one brought on in part by a previous, sugar-laden “meal”). I can think about being productive or connecting with people, but not feel any motivation to do so. But once I subject myself to a healthy trigger or two, the positive behaviour just flows organically. I won’t speculate about the specific physiological changes that take place when I eat a healthy meal, but I know that my brain is interpreting the message that I’m committed to wellness. As a result, my mood tends to improve dramatically.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to identify just 1-2 triggers that you can integrate into your life right now. These triggers should make it easier for you to spend your time in closer alignment with your values. If you’re unsure where to begin looking for triggers, here are 10 examples of that some folks find helpful.

  1. Journalling first thing in the morning.
  2. Practicing a gratitude exercise before eating.
  3. Setting out tomorrow’s outfit before going to bed.
  4. Spending 5 minutes moving your body/stretching.
  5. Diffusing essential oils.
  6. Getting some fresh air.
  7. Turning on a light therapy lamp.
  8. Reaching out to a friend or loved one.
  9. Spending a couple of extra minutes on personal hygiene.
  10. My personal favourite – starting the day with a cold shower.