Sexually addictive behaviors are typically triggered by one of two things: a strong desire to escape an uncomfortable feeling, or a strong reminder of the pleasure experienced through sexual fantasy and activity. Either type of trigger will induce, in sex addicts, the craving to act out sexually.
It is important to note that addiction cravings are not the same as a non-addicted person craving a bag of potato chips or a scoop of ice cream after a hard day at work. Addiction cravings are more like the need for air after holding your breath for a minute or more. Once addiction cravings are triggered, they are beyond conscious control. They escape reason and logic. They are so powerful that they overwhelm and take control of the addict’s thought process. This is why sex addicts (and other addicts) find it so difficult to establish and maintain sobriety, despite the promises they’ve made to themselves and their loved ones.
As with other addictions, there are two basic types of sex addiction triggers: internal, and external. Internal triggers typically involve stress and other forms of emotional discomfort that the addict does not want to feel. External triggers can be people, places, things, or events that create either emotional discomfort or remembrance of sexual pleasure.
A few of the more common internal sex addiction triggers are:
- Unresolved resentments and anger
- Shame (feeling useless, worthless, and unlovable)
- Feeling unappreciated
- Depression, sadness, grief, etc.
A few of the more common external sex addiction triggers are:
- Unexpected exposure to sexual stimuli (i.e., a Victoria’s Secret catalog, a sexy billboard, driving by a strip club, seeing a prostitute, encountering an attractive person, etc.)
- Reprimands (at work, in school, at home, or elsewhere)
- Financial insecurity
- Unstructured free time
- Relationship breakups
- Unexpected life changes (job, finances, losses, gains, etc.)
- Drug and/or alcohol use
- Trouble within the family (like a child struggling at school)
- Travel (especially alone)
Sex addicts must also deal with intertwined triggers (triggers that are both external and internal). For instance, if a sex addict argues with his or her spouse or has a bad day at work (an external trigger), he or she is likely to experience emotional discomfort (an internal trigger), with both triggers causing a desire to act out sexually. And this desire may be exacerbated by visual triggers that remind the addict of his or her addiction (such as driving past strip clubs, prostitutes, and drug dealers).
Interestingly, not all triggers are negative in nature. Sometimes material successes and positive emotions will evoke a desire to celebrate, and thus a desire to act out sexually.
Unfortunately, triggers toward sex addiction are unavoidable. Think about all the attractive people (i.e., potential sexual partners) that a sex addict sees on a daily basis. Think about sex addicts dealing with the rollercoaster of life and the emotions that induces. Triggers are everywhere, and there is very little that sex addicts can do about that beyond learning to recognize and deal with them in healthy, non-addictive ways (like talking to a friend, going to a 12-step meeting, etc.)
I will discuss the process of combating triggers in more detail in future postings to this site, or you can read my recently published book, Sex Addiction 101. For now, I will simply reiterate that if a sex addict can learn to identify his or her triggers and stop them in their tracks before they induce craving, then he or she has a much better chance to stay sober.