How to Respond to Emotional Triggers using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Using the SINCD tool to respond to your triggering thoughts and emotions

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You have felt it.

Your heart is beating. You feel flushed. You may be frustrated, stressed or you just had a fight with your significant other or your kids. You crave relief of the tension because somewhere inside you something feels not right. You need something to take the edge off. Then the thought comes to mind: “Who cares, I might as well just…”

Then insert your drug of choice or your obsession: drink, do blow, smoke up, eat the chips, drive fast, binge watch, surf the internet…

Who cares, I might as well just (use, eat, surf, binge, get angry)… ?

Your answer to that question reveals the place where you experience the struggle to decide whether you will choose behaviors that enhance your life or continue with behaviors that erode your self-confidence, your energy and your sense of connection with yourself and the significant people in your life.

If you are struggling with a trigger, it means that you care about yourself and your decisions.

This question can reveal a subtle sense of giving yourself permission to use. It is a way to give yourself an out rather than work through your struggle. However, remember that relapse is not inevitable. If you are struggling with a trigger thought or emotion, this is proof that you have other values that are also important to you.

Who cares? You do, because this decision is important. To repeat, if you are struggling with a trigger, it means that you care about yourself and your decisions.

What I discuss below is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It is a tool that takes about 30-60 seconds with practice. This will help to change your relationship with your thoughts and your feelings about your trigger.

Remember: You don’t have to try to distract yourself. The reality is that telling yourself to stop thinking about a boat won’t make you think about ducks. Instead, telling yourself to stop thinking about boats will just remind you that you are thinking about boats.
Working through a trigger is not about avoiding difficult emotions. Your emotions are present for a reason and even if it doesn’t feel like this right now, they are an opportunity to experience more life. Attempting to avoid your emotions will only add more pressure and can contribute to a relapse.

Using the SINCD tool to work through a trigger

Here is a summary of the five steps to work through a trigger to use, using the acronym “SINCD
S – SLOW down, close your eyes, take a few breaths. Then SPEAK out loud.
I- INVEST deeper (feel all of the emotions that are surging within you, not just the trigger)
N- NAME all of the issues that are important to you right now
C- CONSIDER: What is most valuable to you?
D – Do one thing: Take a meaningful action

Here are the steps of SINCD in more detail: This can be a tool that you will use to work through a trigger or to work through after you have used or after a slip. It will help to reorient you to what is most important in your life.

Rather than trying to pointlessly “eliminate” it or distract yourself, you have begun to change your relationship with your emotion or thought. It will not disappear, but you will slowly learn to turn down the dial.

1. S – Slow down, close your eyes and take a breath. Breathe in through your nose and then out through your mouth. Feel your heart slow down a few beats. This will help you be more present, care for yourself and it will slow you down so that you can better consider your choices.

Once you take a few breaths, choose one of the following to help you to unhook from the emotion/thought. Unhooking is not avoidance. It is a way to step back and view your emotions and your thoughts as an experience rather than your entire identity:

         i. Name your struggle with a one or two syllable word, ie: ‘pot’ or   ‘chips’ or ‘booze’ or ‘porn.’ Repeatedly say the word again and again for 30-45 seconds: (ie: potpotpotpotpotpot…)
         ii. Or repeat the word very, very, very slowly over 15 seconds: P–O–T.
         iii. Or with an accent or a character voice like Darth Vader, the Terminator, or a
         James Bond English accent, or a French chef accent…
When you practice this approach, it will teach you to create space between you and your trigger thought or emotion. Rather than trying to pointlessly “eliminate” a trigger or distract yourself, you have begun to change your relationship with your emotion or thought. It will not disappear, but you will slowly learn to turn down the dial.
2. I- Invest deeper (feel all of the emotions that are surging within you, not just the trigger). Feel the desire for relief from: stress, struggle, pain, guilt because of an argument/issue/problem; feel pissed off; but also feel your desire to live a better life; feel your hopes that you will reach the goals you have set; and feel the echos of other/deeper values that also you have… Feel them all – what you are looking to do is become more aware that you have many values at work, not simply a desire for relief.
  • The goal is to consider what you can do to invest yourself more fully in this moment, rather than avoid or look for quick distraction.

3. N- Name all of the issues that are important to you right now. What are the issues that you are struggling with? Name out loud as many issues as you can without judging yourself or your issues:

a. you feel tension/stress/anxiety/unsettled

         b. you are upset about, or you regret a verbal conflict that you just had

         c. you desire to use

         d. you want relief, a quick fix, you are impatient

         e. you want to change your behavior

         f. you aspire to be a better… friend, spouse, father, person…

         h. you wonder if you can work through this trigger

4. C- Consider: What is most valuable to you? Name your values. Picture them.

The goal is not to distract, avoid or try to quickly change your behavior because that will only make the trigger worse. Over time, you can learn to change your relationship with your triggering emotions and thoughts.

5. D – Do one thing: Take a meaningful action. It might be going for a walk if you value fitness, or talking with your spouse or another person if you want connection, or closing your eyes and breathing if you are wanting to live more in the moment, or working on a project for your job or writing a few sentences of an article or book you are working on. It should not be big or overwhelming. Take a small, but important action. Then close your eyes, breathe and be present for a moment.

Once energy is created, it cannot be destroyed – only transformed into something else… When you occupy your time and energy in productive actions, it is no longer a battle of attrition. The focus has changed. Energy has been redirected. You are not spending your energy resisting something; you’re spending it doing something else altogether. Mike Mahler

Repeat SINCD as often as you need to while you are struggling. Don’t try to push your emotions or your thoughts away. Thank them for being present.

Remember that the goal is not to distract, avoid or try to quickly change your behavior because that will make the trigger worse. By taking the steps of SINCD, rather than avoid your trigger and create more pressure, you will learn to gently lean into it. Over time, you will change your relationship with your trigger. Honestly exploring the question: Who cares? can be helpful a helpful question rather than a threat that could derail your recovery.

Many of the concepts from this article are taken from ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. You can learn more about this approach by following the links below.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Substance Abuse

For an article that discusses some of the research and theory, you can read the ABC’s of ACT

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If you enjoyed this article, you may want to see some of my other writing on the subject:

Recovery and How to Approach Your Problems in a Whole New Way

Recovery and Your No Good, Terrible and Very Bad Moods

A New Definition of Healing: Acceptance

I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you like what I have to say, please share my work with your friends.

Lastly, if you like my writing, you can click here to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.

Keep it Real

Photo by Jon Nichols


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