Being Sexually Triggered vs. Sexually Aroused

Maybe you have heard recovering sex addicts talk about being “triggered” and wondered how it differs from just being aroused or turned on by some stimulus or other. Being triggered is a common term used in sex addiction recovery. It means something different from simply feeling aroused by something or someone.

A triggering experience can be seeing, hearing or doing something that is a precursor to the addict’s sexual acting out behavior. There are sexual images and sexual stimuli to be seen everywhere but certain kinds of perceptions will be more likely to be associated with a particular person’s preferred sexual behavior.

What triggers do

A trigger sets the stage for a sequence of behavior moving toward acting out. An addict whose preferred sexual scenario involves power and exploiting someone weaker, such as that of rescuing a helpless female may be triggered by seeing an attractive woman who is in a difficult situation.

Sex addicts are not always fully aware of why an experience is triggering. It may seem to be unrelated to their sexual acting out behavior and still make them want to go out and do that behavior. An addict who typically finds sexual partners for anonymous sex through the internet may begin to feel an urge to relapse into that behavior when simply looking at Craig’s List ads for someone to play bridge with. The mere fact of online descriptions or photos of people may be enough. In this case the addict is on thin ice, often not realizing it.

The triggering experience need not be sexual and in fact often it is not. For someone who is compulsive with prostitutes or sexual massage parlors, certain parts of town or certain streets may cause the beginning of a chain reaction known as the addict’s “ritual.” An addict who is an exhibitionist or a voyeur will likely become triggered in any situation in which being seen or seeing others undressed is a possibility, such as finding him or herself in a locker room or changing room with little privacy.

In contrast to ordinary arousal, being triggered may involve the beginning of delusional thinking. The addict sees something and either consciously or unconsciously it touches off an association with the addictive behavior on whatever level. At this point, sexual acting out begins to seem more like a viable option even though the addict wants to avoid it like the plague when he has his wits about him.

Identifying “triggery” feelings as useful information

Although addicts may slip into ritual or delusional thinking without realizing it, there are often ways to catch yourself and not move toward a slip or relapse.

  • Feeling triggered can involve a sudden feeling of hyper-arousal, a dopaminergic “burst”, which is different from normal sexual arousal or attraction. It is more sudden and intense and is thus more compelling. To an addict in good recovery it is a warning. Sometimes the triggering involves the blurring of boundaries with other intense feelings like fear or anger which in turn bring on sexually addictive urges.
  • Another way that the addict may identify a trigger is through noticing and examining their own thought processes. Addicts in recovery get progressively better at seeing the ways in which their thinking can go awry. Even though you may not think there was any triggering event, you may still notice that your mind has for some reason begun to distort reality.
  • You may find yourself feeling that there is no harm in doing a particular behavior or you may begin to look for little ways to get a sexual hit.  At this point the addict can get a handle on things by going back and looking at what may have been a triggering experience.
  • Since the sex addict is locked into a pretty set pattern of sexual acting out behavior, it is sometimes the case that the experience of feeling triggered is one of sudden familiarity.  The excitement, the intrigue, whatever it is, feels like where the addict belongs. This is another kind of signal.  In normal arousal there is always some sense of not knowing where it is going.

But remember, they are your triggers and you must manage them. It is never someone else’s fault if you get triggered! Most recovering addicts get very good at identifying what are triggers for them ahead of time and avoiding them. This takes time and experience and is part of what happens in treatment and 12-step work.

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