Sensing addiction: Exploring different triggers’ effects on the senses
Articles / Blog


On the road to recovery, the slippery slope that leads off track and into relapse is littered with some common landmarks. A former addict may be exposed to a trigger at some point, which can lead to craving and eventually a full-blown recession into one’s old habits. Over decades of research aimed at improving the healing process, researchers have established comprehensive treatment strategies that excel in separating formerly dependent people from possible triggers and preparing them for when they are forced to confront one. However, educating the public of the harmful influences they can have on others struggling with addiction may also provide a better outcome for their respective recoveries.

First of all, a trigger can come in a variety of different shapes and forms, but being exposed to one brings up thoughts, emotions and behaviors related to a past addiction. Within a scientific context, triggers are also known as cues. Dating back to the psychology of Pavlov and his classical conditioning research, specific cues can evoke particular responses in many living beings, such as a dog salivating to the presence of food. The patterns of addiction are formed in a similar way. If someone in recovery runs into a person, place or object related to a his or her former dependency, it can stir up deeply buried feelings and tendencies.

This is largely due to the pathways impacted by drug abuse and addiction. As a person receives the reward administered by powerful and manipulative substances, the brain learns from the pleasurable pattern and starts rewiring neural connections to encourage continued satisfaction. This rewiring causes obsessive thoughts and behavioral urges to emerge. After a long history with addiction solidifies these maladaptive changes in the brain, it can be incredibly difficult to shift them back to more healthy standards. In a nutshell, this process is essentially a real-world example of classical conditioning at work.

With an improved understanding of how cues and triggers work in the process of addiction, it is also important to learn how these environmental stimuli can occur during one’s daily journey.

Sight and hearing

The most commonly referenced types of cues are visual and aural stimuli. This can once again be traced back to Pavlov and his experiments. In addition to exposing subjects to visually observable triggers such as the presence of food, the renowned researcher successfully associated auditory cues like ringing a bell to the same behavioral responses. Many modern studies observe the effects of sight and sound as well. A 2003 experiment comparing both types of stimuli found that visual cues had a more significant effect on attention and behavioral modification, but a active combination of both was an important factor in targeting new responses.

Other experts in the field have showcased this important, but often overlooked phenomenon. Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Mount Holyoke College’s Department of Biological Sciences, has a background in optometric vision therapy and retraining other perceptual skills. In relation to the overall process she said, “The first area of our visual cortex to receive input from our eyes is called the primary visual cortex. It was once thought that neurons in this area respond almost exclusively to stimuli coming from the eyes. But we now know that the activity of these neurons is affected by ‘higher’ brain centers which are involved in prediction and planning.”

Abusing these pathways with a drug can seriously impair the ability to foresee one’s future consequences. However, an effective detox and recovery strategy can build new paths toward health. Becoming aware of visual stimuli can lead to a more conscious approach to triggering objects or situations.

Smell and taste

Smell and taste are also particularly influential senses. A common experience for a lot of people is being transported to different times and places with a single sniff, but there is scientific evidence that supports this occurrence. One study from the Department of Neuropharmacology at The Scripps Research Institute had traced the brain’s response to environmental cues to a specific area known as the nucleus accumbens. By measuring the region’s activity, the researchers could determine if smell could elicit stimulation and behavioral changes. Researchers were able to associate unique smells with either receiving alcoholic or nonalcoholic doses. Even after an abstinence period, this established stimulus-response relationship continued to influence behavior.

Other related research also throws the sense of taste in the mix. This is because smell and taste play an equal part in the olfactory system of the body. Experiencing flavor is a prime example of how these two elements can interact. In addition, a 2013 study conducted at the University of California at San Francisco explored deeper connections and found that after exposing laboratory rats to the smell or taste of alcohol, a small window of opportunity existed for cutting off the recollection of memories. By administering a new drug called rapamycin, cravings in test subjects halted. Continuing to learn about these inner complexities of behavior will foster further leaps in improving addiction treatments.

A range of different feelings can have a powerful impact on reinforcement. By viewing addiction as a learned, behavioral pattern, it is easy to see why triggering cues can have such a powerful effect on human behavior, even after long-term treatment. While relapse will always be the biggest threat to a smooth recovery after addiction, it is crucial to know how these influential elements can arise in order to better protect oneself from them.

Sovereign Health Group enlists the most qualified mental health professionals to address the most pressing ailments of the modern world. In the case of addiction, protecting a person’s process of recovery is the prime concern. If you or someone you know is struggling with sobriety, contact Sovereign over the phone or online for useful information and other helpful resources.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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