Relapse Prevention in The Canyons: Training Ourselves to be Aware Of and Deal With Triggers

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Relapse prevention is an important topic in substance abuse treatment. At Legacy Outdoor Adventures and Juniper Canyon Recovery Center, one topic of relapse prevention we focus on is identifying and understanding our triggers. This post comes from a guide who describes using canyoneering as a way to teach Legacy clients about the role that identifying triggers plays in relapse prevention.

What are triggers? Triggers induce an emotional response in us that can lead to destructive thoughts and behaviors. A trigger can be physical – something you see, hear, or experience.  A trigger could be a smell that we associate with using drugs or alcohol. A trigger could also be seeing someone who we associate with negative behaviors or thought patterns. There are also emotional triggers. An emotion-induced by an everyday occurrence – happy or sad- can trigger a larger emotional response which leads to a relapse.

Trigger Busters in the canyon. This week at Legacy we worked on creating awareness around the things that trigger us and tools to help deal with them. We incorporated this with a canyoneering adventure. Canyoneering is descending technical slot canyons by hiking, down climbing, and rappelling through the canyon. It requires teamwork and good communication to navigate and descend the canyon safely and efficiently.

After gathering all the equipment we needed to descend the canyon, we began our approach hike from the trailhead. The first half mile of the hike was flat and did not offer much of a challenge. Then we came to a trail that led straight up a hill where we would gain 700 feet in elevation over the course of ¾ mile. At this point we sat down, took our packs off, and had a discussion about triggers. We defined what triggers are, what experiences people have had being triggered, and what specific things trigger us. We then talked about specific tools we use to fight triggers. Then we introduced the idea of a trigger buster.

A trigger buster is a tool to interrupt the internal response that the trigger causes and reconnect us to the present moment. The trigger buster starts with the awareness that we are being triggered. Next, we practice mindfulness with  a deep breath to calm ourselves and slow down our thoughts. Then we have the space and ability to engage in some positive self-talk – a mantra or an affirmation – around resisting the urge to act destructively after being triggered.

After explaining what a trigger buster was, we asked clients to take a moment or two in silent meditation to think about and develop a personal mantra or affirmation that they could tell themselves when things got tough. Everyone shared their saying out loud and we began the hike uphill. When the hike got tough we encouraged each other to take a deep breath and repeat our mantras.

The most fear and stress inducing part of canyoneering for clients is usually repelling into the canyons themselves.  Because of this,  we wanted to use the rappels to practice our trigger busters. When each member was half way down the rappel, their partner below would take him on belay so he could let go of the rope with both hands. With both hands free of the rope each member practiced taking a deep breath and saying their mantra. One group member stated that he realized the purpose of this exercise and saw the value in it. “If I can learn, practice, and condition myself to practice a trigger buster while hanging off the side of a cliff on a rope, I will be able to do it when I am tempted by something in my regular life. But I know I have to practice it so it becomes my natural response to dealing with stuff when it comes up.”

This canyoneering adventure proved to be a successful one. Not only did we have a great time hiking, exploring, rappelling, climbing and celebrating recovery- but we also learned about addiction, triggers, and how we deal with triggers.  The canyon helped create a meaningful setting for us to teach and talk about relapse prevention.

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