Television Triggers: Why What You Watch Is Important in Recovery

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Noting how seeing cocaine, pills or even needles on the small screen “puts them in her brain,” Lovato knows that circumventing these potential triggers – defined as anything in a person’s normal environment and lifestyle that could subconsciously nudge him back toward addiction – is crucial. In an interview with In Style, she puts it simply: “I don’t need to see that.”

Lovato is definitely not alone in believing that what we watch has the potential to derail the progress of someone in recovery. Doctors who specialize in mental health and addiction have identified that people who struggle with substance abuse have their own set of people, places and things – including popular entertainment – that can be potential triggers.

Whether it’s a friend or group you associate with drug use, a particular bar or restaurant, a home associated with overindulging, or a movie where recreational drug use is front and center, avoiding exposure to drug or alcohol use can be helpful, especially for people new to sobriety.

Tuning In With Care

After a suicide prevention advocacy group questioned whether 13 Reasons Why – the popular, teen-centric Netflix drama that chronicled the events leading up to a high school student committing suicide – did more harm than good, the second season featured a regular disclaimer and a public service announcement noting how the series might not be right for some viewers and, ultimately, should be watched with a trusted adult if the subject matter hit a little too close to home.²

While some experts concluded that 13 Reasons was shining a much-needed spotlight on mental health and suicide – an issue that’s the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 to 34 – others questioned whether the story was too sensational and graphic. Often citing how the narrative lacked nuance, they also feared whether watching would lead to copycat suicides.

Perhaps fearing similar pushback from mental health experts following 13 Reasons, each episode of Sharp Objects, an HBO series starring Amy Adams that centers around the murders of two young women, concluded by pointing viewers to resources that can help anyone struggling with substance abuse or self-harm.³

There’s a fine line between raising awareness and showing too much, and an ongoing conversation about this has been sparked by everything from Elliot’s addiction issues in Mr. Robot to Emily Blunt’s character’s alcohol dependency on The Girl on the Train to the crystal meth that was practically a lead character on Breaking Bad.

Keeping Triggers in Check

The very nature of a trigger is that it often arrives without advance warning or over-the-top fanfare. They can show up unexpectedly, so that’s precisely why mental health professionals emphasize the importance of preparing a strategy for when these triggers arise. Choosing what you watch and what media you consume can be an integral part of that strategy.

While temptations to relapse may be prevalent — recent stats indicate that as many as 90 percent of patients struggle with relapse after their formal treatment ends⁴ — not exposing yourself to entertainment that could be a trigger can be a real game changer.

Like everything, planning is key. In the early stages of recovery, it’s probably not the best idea to go channel surfing and not knowing what might pop up on the screen. It’s also important to note how you respond to seeing something you may have struggled with — or still struggle with — to know what the best course of action is. It may be eliminating, or at least pushing pause on, any programming where drugs, alcohol or mental health challenges are featured for the sake of your sobriety.


Sources

1 Todd, Carolyn L. “Why Demi Lovato Doesn’t Watch TV Shows That Give Drugs a Lot of Screen Time.” Self, March 13, 2018.

2 Thorbecke, Catherine. “13 Reasons Why Faces Backlash From Suicide Prevention Group.” ABC News, April 18, 2017.

3 Ivie, Devon. “Sharp Objects Will End All Episodes With Mental Health and Substance Abuse PSAs.” Vulture, July 7, 2018.

4 “Guide to Relapse Triggers.” Michael’s House, Accessed August 12, 2018.

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