Addictive behaviors don’t just happen spontaneously; there are specific causes behind them. We call these addictive triggers. According to Dr. Archibald Hart, an addictive trigger is a “Starting Stimulus” that begins the process that eventually leads us to act out on our addiction. For those who struggle with sexual addictions and compulsions, these triggers can be very subtle. We may wonder why we find ourselves constantly noticing women in the cars next to us when we aren’t even trying to notice anyone, or find ourselves flirting with waitresses or cashiers for unexplained reasons. Without an understanding of the dynamics causing all of this, we will find ourselves being triggered from one episode to another with little or no control over what is happening to us. Triggers differ from person to person and from addictive behavior to addictive behavior. Often the roots of these trigger mechanisms can be traced to experiences we disliked as a child. Here are some common triggers:
- sense of failure
- unmet sexual needs
- selfish needs
According to Hart, there are many other possible triggers for addictive behavior. 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.
The problem for most of us is that we that we either don’t know or we don’t have a very clear understanding of what is actually compelling us to do the things we do. This can make it seem as though we have no choice but to act out on our compulsive behaviors. For those who will take the time, it is possible to learn more about the causes behind the drives of inappropriate sexual behavior. The purpose of this article is to offer some practical tips.
Two primary causes
Addictive behaviors are usually motivated by two primary causes: the need for excitement and stimulation; and, underlying psychological and emotional issues that propel us to relieve the stress that is continually building up. Thus, we have a clue for two very powerful triggers.
When we are faced with boredom or inactivity, it is very possible to become triggered. Many people report that times when they are home alone, with nothing special to do, are prime times for acting out. Others note that late nights, when there is nothing to do but watch television or surf the internet, can be overwhelming times when acting out is very predictable.
For some, the viewing of images or participating in shadowy sexual activity offers an excitement that is missing from everyday life. Some report this excitement creates a sense of aliveness. Since compulsive sexual behavior is often fantasy based, this aliveness is projected into the fantasy making it even more powerful for the person who imagines it. The person feels alive when they join the fantasy of doing something that is forbidden either by their belief system or greatly restricted in their personal relationships. Others report that there is a profound sense of flow that occurs when participating in the addictive behavior. When a person is in flow, the concentration becomes focused as never before and perceptions of time seemingly stands still.
H A L T stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. This does not mean that you can blame your behavior on being hungry, angry, lonely or tired; but, it does help you to realize that you are more liable to participate in inappropriate behavior when you find yourself in one or more of these life situations. When we are under stress, these four conditions magnify our need to relieve tension and serve to weaken our resolve to overcome our addictions. Studies have shown that compulsive behaviors are more likely to occur when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. To avoid acting out, it is important that we monitor our lives and pay attention to situations where H A L T may likely occur. Our goal is to study our personal patterns of living that lead us a H A L T condition. From there we learn how to create boundaries to avoid being in H A L T or we devise work a way to work around these situations to keep us from acting out.
Anger and Resentment
Embedded in the H A L T formula is anger. Anger and resentments often drive addictive and compulsive behaviors. Many times we feel we are entitled to something we are not receiving. Perhaps we feel as though our spouses are not as loving or sexually giving as we think they should be. As our anger and resentments begin to build, we’ll find emotional tension arising within and a desire to relieve it somehow. If we allow our minds to move towards fantasy–we’ll create a condition where acting out is all but inevitable.
How to learn more about your triggers
There is a simple process we can use to learn more about our triggers. It involves carrying a simple notebook and writing down each time each time we find ourselves either thinking, or moving towards a sexual behavior. For instance, let’s say you notice yourself taking second looks at some person in the shopping mall. You would make a note the time of day, the behavior you just observed and a small amount of information about what we were doing at the time. In the beginning, your goal is to become aware of at least 10 times during the day that your thoughts or behaviors were triggered in a sexual way. Over time, you may begin to notice a series of patterns that happen.
In my life, I found that loneliness to be a powerful trigger. When I felt my wife didn’t appreciate me, I would begin to feel anxious and lonely. This in turn caused me to want to turn to my addictive behavior–which in turn would serve to medicate my anxious feelings. Another trigger I discovered was my need for feelings of excitement and stimulation. I noticed a correlation between my desire to take long looks at anonymous women in public places (this is known as public voyeurism) and the feelings of excitement it created in me.
Create a plan
Once you know what your primary triggers are, you can go about setting rules and boundaries for yourself. For instance, when I am feeling lonely I have discovered that it is not wise for me to watch television or surf the internet. Loneliness creates a tension in me that causes me to seek out my old addiction. Instead, I read a book, if I’m too tired to get out, or I go out and do something with a friend. When I feel bored or a need for excitement, I realize that I need to participate in something I enjoy or watch sports.
Learning more about emotional conditions and situations, such as H A L T, that trigger your compulsions and addictions gives you a tremendous tool to help you fight back against your addictive tendencies. Studying your behavior patterns and noticing your feelings and reactions in the moment by recording them in a small notebook can help you learn faster. Setting boundaries to keep these triggers further away from you can help you win the victory you seek. In the end, we must be willing to act on what we know to move us to where we want to go.