Setting Boundaries: 7 Ways to Talk About Triggers

A trigger is an external or internal stimulus that prompts a response or reaction. An external stimulus can be people, places, or things, like conversations about alcohol—basically, anything that comes from outside of you. Internal triggers are often emotions, thoughts, or senses that remind you of alcohol or using alcohol to cope with unwanted feelings or thoughts. Setting boundaries to prevent triggers is an important part of recovery.

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Identifying Triggers

An essential relapse prevention skill is understanding and recognizing internal and external triggers that lead to a craving. Alcohol activates certain parts of the brain, like the reward center—the same part of the brain activated when you are triggered.

Once you start experiencing cravings, you should teach yourself some conscious coping strategies to use whenever you feel a craving. Over time, these strategies become unconscious habits.

This means recognizing conversation topics that have the potential to make you think of drinking. Of course, not all discussions will be the same, so it’s crucial to recognize all types—from brief, superficial conversations to deeper ones.

Triggering conversations don’t always have to be about alcohol. Triggering conversation topics can be about unhealthy relationships, growing up with an alcoholic parent, events, movies, and more. The conversation acts as a stressor that triggers a thought and a change in emotion.

Stressful thoughts are powerful and may include:

  • Cognitive errors—When you misinterpret something because it reminds you of a previous time when you were drinking. A conversation could be about celebrating the holidays, and you are triggered to think about those times because you spent previous holidays misusing alcohol.
  • Excessive or inappropriate guilt—When you feel guilty because you could get better, but someone you know continues to struggle with alcohol use disorder. Survivor’s guilt is an extreme example. If you are having a conversation with someone and bringing up a friend who is still battling a substance use disorder, it may trigger you to think about drinking.
  • Trauma-induced hallucinations or delusions—When you see or hear something that is not real but reminds you previous behaviors during a conversation, may trigger you to drink alcohol.
  • Intrusive thoughts and memories—When conversations may cause a flood of thoughts and memories about a time when you were drinking, typically appearing without warning.

Somatic and behavioral symptoms are also reactions to emotional distress and triggers can lead to reactions other than a craving, like:

Once you understand the topics of conversation that trigger your thoughts and emotions, you can set boundaries for your conversations with friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers.

Boundaries are like a protective barrier between you and another person. Healthy boundaries support recovery. There are multiple ways you can set boundaries about triggering topics of conversations and learn how not to relapse.

1. Setting Boundaries by Stating Your Boundaries

Language plays a significant role in recovery. What you say to others and what you say to yourself matters. One study examined people’s language in an online discussion forum and found certain words, statements, and figures of speech correlated with risky drinking, including relapse. Because the words you use can be associated with relapse, and they can also help you avoid a relapse.

What you say to others and what you say to yourself matters. Use your words and language to set a boundary.

When dealing with triggering topics of conversation, use your words and language to set a boundary; tell others you can’t participate in discussions that make you crave alcohol or drugs.

2. Express Your Emotion

Emotions motivate reactions. Research has shown a connection between those who cannot effectively express their feelings and the development of substance use disorders. Drugs and alcohol make expressions simpler for some people, which implies that if you do not learn to express your feelings in recovery appropriately, it may trigger a relapse.

Those who can express emotions effectively have learned how to become aware of their feelings and are willing to express them. They are less likely to use drugs or alcohol because they know how to explain what they feel to avoid a relapse.

Stating your feelings regarding a triggering topic of conversation is a boundary that is easier to set if you use “I” language. Studies have shown that slightly changing the language you use in difficult conversations reduces tension and improves outcomes. An example of an “I” statement regarding triggering conversations could be,

“I know you don’t want me to relapse, so I wanted to let you know that when you talk about drinking, I feel anxious and sometimes crave a drink.”

3. Ask for a Heads Up

Trigger warnings give someone time to prepare physically, mentally, or otherwise for engaging or avoiding conversations that may lead to cravings or potential relapse. Trigger warnings are often used in academic settings to let students know the material may contain words, pictures or lead to discussions that may be uncomfortable for some people.

Trigger warnings are often at the beginning of television shows containing graphic information and should be avoided by some. They are a heads up someone can give you before they engage in potentially triggering topics of conversation. You can set a boundary by asking someone to provide you with a trigger warning.

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4. Be Honest About Your Needs

Telling the truth is essential when explaining what conversations about alcohol do to you. It’s okay to ask someone to change the topic of conversation. Many of your family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances may not realize talking about alcohol can be a trigger. If they are not in recovery, they may not get it. Don’t be afraid to open up to them about how conversations can trigger a craving.

5. Reach Out for Help

Others in recovery can give you advice on setting conversation boundaries. If you feel you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out for it.

The friends in your recovery life are just as important as family. Social bonds promote well-being. If your social bonds are healthy, your well-being will likely be healthy too. If you continue to hang around friends who drink and party, it will be harder for you to abstain from drinking.

Friends can offer two types of recovery support: general and specific. General support includes friends who help you maintain overall good health and sobriety. Specific supports are those connected to you through one thing—in this case, alcohol. For example, if you maintain relationships with specific sober people, it’s more likely to will not encounter alcohol-related conversations that trigger a relapse.

6. Avoid the Conversation

Avoid people who talk about drinking or substance misuse. Your sobriety is a top priority. Learning to avoid triggers is beneficial to recovery. You are not obligated to participate in any conversation that is harmful to your recovery.

You are not obligated to participate in any conversation that is harmful to your recovery.

To protect yourself from giving in to cravings for alcohol, create a list of activities you can do the minute you recognize an uncomfortable conversation. Your list may include actions like:

  • Finding and attending a 12-step meeting
  • Exercising
  • Seeking help from a counselor
  • Practicing spirituality or prayer
  • Calling your therapist or sponsor
  • Leaving the situation
  • Calling a sober friend

7. Don’t Bend the Rules

Part of being in recovery means taking care of your mental and physical needs. Doing so makes make you stronger when you encounter triggering topics of conversation. Commit to being consistent and don’t bend the rules you have set for yourself. Keep the goal of sobriety in mind.

The more you make sobriety a priority, the more you will build intrapersonal and interpersonal skills needed to set boundaries for triggering topics of conversation. Your self-efficacy will continue to increase. Self-efficacy is the belief you have in yourself to positively handle risky situations and avoid a relapse.

Continue Setting Boundaries Over Time

The effort you put into enforcing boundaries over time is key to long-term sobriety. The more you learn and practice dealing with triggers that may occur when talking to friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers, the better you will develop skills that promote resilience.

Here are some tips to help you get stronger in your recovery so you can get better at setting boundaries:

  • Find ways to stay motivated for change. Think about what you can lose if you relapse. Remind yourself of the people counting on you to stay sober.
  • Strengthen coping skills. Create a massive list of skills you can access when you encounter triggering topics of conversations.
  • Develop a spiritual or religious relationship, and when you need to set boundaries, you can pray for strength and guidance. Many people do this through 12-step groups.
  • Improve self-awareness, so you are not caught off guard by triggering topics of conversations. There are immediate mindfulness techniques to help you know when it’s time to set boundaries, such as:
    • Biofeedback, including heart rate variability biofeedback
    • Progressive muscle relaxation
    • Deep breathing
    • Autogenic training
    • Visualization
    • Emotional regulation

Each activity you do to manage triggers and cravings better can also strengthen your ability to set boundaries.

If you have an experience with a conversation that triggered a craving for alcohol, call us. We can connect you with therapists, support groups, and many other local resources to help you build your list of trigger management techniques.

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