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What does the brain like?
The human brain likes to be in a state called "homeostasis". That means that it likes things to remain the same, level, no peaks and valleys. Many things occur in our daily lives that cause chemicals to increase and decrease in level in our brains. Simple things like eating, sleeping, watching a good movie, going to work all cause chemical levels to increase and decrease in our brains. This is normal and how the brain works.

What is a "Trigger"?
The brain is a very adaptable, and it "learns" things over time. One thing that our brains learn to do is to anticipate reactions to stimuli. You know the thing about Pavlov's dogs where they rang a bell before they fed the dogs every time they fed them, and after a while just ringing the bell made the dogs salivate? This is because the dog's brain learned to anticipate the food arriving because of the bell ringing. Our brains associate things going on around us with things that happen.

How does this relate to drug use and recovery?
Remember when I said the brain likes to "stay the same"? Well, once someone's brain has associated a "Trigger" with something happening in the brain, the brain starts to compensate for that event before it even happens. Let me explain with a story.

The Story of Bob
   Bob stopped by a friend's house after work one day. There was some rock music playing in the background. Bob had been working overtime all week and happened to be really tired. Bob's friend offers Bob some meth. Bob gives it a try.
  Bob's brain had no idea that it was about to be bombarded by dopamine. It was not prepared for this to happen. Bob is now Super-alert, extra-happy, not hungry at all, and all the other things that happen at the beginning of meth use. Bob -- is high. Bob notices that he doesn't feel tired anymore and can party all night.
   Bob's brain immediately starts to attempt to regain a normal state and begins breaking down the meth, transporting the remaining dopamine back to the barrels, and destroying any excess dopamine. Bob's brain wants normal. Bob's brain doesn't like being high. Bob's brain wants homeostasis!
   24 hours later Bob feels worse than he started out. He's exhausted, depressed and has an overwhelming desire to eat the house down.
The next week...
   Bob sleeps all day Sunday and things are back to normal by Monday morning. Bob starts another long work week. By lunch on Friday Bob is pretty tired. He remembers last Friday, and how great it felt to be high. Bob decides to repeat last Friday.
   He again goes to his friend's house, and again there is rock music playing . His friend hooks him up with more meth.
   Here's where the brain says "OK.... now listen here just one minute!!" Bob's brain takes a little note about Bob's friend, and Bob's friend's house, and Bob's friend's music and how Bob was tired. Bob's brain determines that those things means that Bob is about to get high.
   Well, Bob manages to party all night, but he feels even MORE like crap the next Monday. Bob decides that the meth isn't worth it and that he will go back to catching up on his sleep on the weekends to combat his tiredness.
The next week...
Well Bob makes it through the week and Friday comes. He's determined not to get high anymore, but decides that he can still go visit his friend, have a beer or two, then go home and catch some sleep.
   Bob arrives at his friend's house. Bob's brain goes "OH NO!!!!! I know what He's going to do! I see Bob's friend and I see the kitchen table where the drugs were and I hear the music and Bob is tired! Well screw this! I'm going to start working on getting back to normal RIGHT NOW, because I know what's coming.
   So Bob's brain starts transporting the little bit of dopamine that was released when Bob was happy to see his friend and be done with another week of work back to the barrel. It starts destroying any extra. It starts to combat the super-energized state that it knows is coming by making Bob feel super-tired. Bob's pulse slows. Bob's blood pressure drops. Bob is now the opposite of high.
   But Bob didn't use yet!! His body has already started reacting before he even took a hit. So his brain has now caused a new problem -- now his dopamine levels are too low. A few minutes later the brain now says "Oh... damn.... well now I need something to bring me back up!"
   So now Bob starts rethinking his initial resolve to stay away from the drugs. He feels SOOO tired, and gosh the meth really did give him energy last time. Maybe just a little bit would be OK? His brain agrees.
Did you hear that? HIS BRAIN AGREED
   Bob's brain's desire to maintain homeostasis has now caused his brain to tell Bob to use.
   If Bob had just gone home, or decided to visit a different friend, then his brain would not have had the same reaction

   Our brains have long been responsible for keeping us alive, and homeostasis is one way that our brains insure that we function normally. Arguing with our brain chemistry is not a battle we are designed to win. Avoiding triggers can go a long way in making recovery obtainable. It is likely that your brain has associated the following as triggers:

  • Places that you used

  • People you used with

  • How you felt before using

  • Drug paraphernalia

   If you used to avoid hunger or fatigue, try not to let yourself GET too hungry or tired, as your brain may react to those feelings as if you were going to use.
   Sometimes triggers are unavoidable. Maybe you used at your own kitchen table. Moving may not be a realistic option! It may make it easier to avoid a trigger response if you change the look of your environment. Add a coat of paint in a new color, redecorate. If you can make things look different, your brain will have a harder time associating your environment with the trigger it has learned.
   What if a trigger is impossible to avoid? For example, maybe you used with your spouse, and they always prepared your hit for you? Unfortunately, seeing your spouse walk through the door may be a trigger. Being aware that triggers happen may help you fight that trigger. Knowing that your sudden desire to use, even though 10 minutes ago you vowed not to, is just a trigger, might give you the knowledge you need to fight that trigger.

Fighting your brain, and winning
   Your brain will eventually start reversing the reaction it has had to a trigger. Remember, it wants to be back to normal, too. If you can wait it out, the desire caused by your brains response to a trigger will pass. Studies show that the average trigger-driven craving lasts approximately 2 minutes. So find something else to do for 2 minutes. Remove yourself from the situation for 2 minutes. Drink a glass of water, it's good for you anyway!

Lori Pate
B.A Psychology
University of Texas at Austin
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor and this page was not intended to provide medical advice.

Other articles by Lori Pate:

The Brain Chemistry of Being a Loved One
When there is more than meth going on
Meth and Metabolism
Dopamine, Methamphetamines, and You

Back to Crystal Meth & Methamphetamine Questions, Answers & Advice

THIS SITE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your health care professional if you have a specific health concern.


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