New research is shedding light on how our brains deal with cues for addictive behavior and substances. The research shows why it might be harder to ignore addictive environmental cues when we’re experiencing stress, which could provide useful information to treat and address addiction.

Addiction Triggers Are More Prominent Than You Realize

If you’re someone who smokes, you may find it difficult to quit when you’re in an environment that could include addiction triggers, such as the smell of smoke. An addictive trigger in your environment may cause you to have nicotine cravings you weren’t previously experiencing. Studies have shown that seeing an ad for alcohol can cause hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain for people with an alcohol use disorder.

Separate studies have shown that environmental stimuli, including places and objectives, can impact our brain. Exposure to cues in the environment may strengthen our memory association, including the use of addictive substances.

A researcher from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, served as the lead author of a study recently published in the Psychological Science journal. The research looks at our brain’s ability to fend off those cues that are addiction triggers by using executive control processes. The new research has potential implications that can help us understand more about external triggers in addiction, the relationship between addiction cravings and triggers and could be useful in addiction treatment and recovery.

The research looked at whether ignoring reward cues was more difficult if people had to use their working memory at full capacity. Working memory is also known as our short-term memory, and it lets us maintain information while we partake in particular activities. In the study, researchers had participants look at a screen with different shapes, one of which was a diamond and one of which was a brightly-colored circle.

Researchers told participants they would get money if they could find the diamond and then keep their eyes on it. If they looked at the colorful circle, researchers informed them that they wouldn’t get anything. Differently colored circles meant different rewards for the completion of the diamond task. Essentially, the diamond was the focus goal for participants and the colorful circle was a reward cue that was a distraction.

The researchers used eye-tracking devices and participants were asked to do the task under a low- and high-memory load, to determine how well they could control their attention. In the high-memory-load situation, the participants also had to memorize a set of numbers in addition to the diamond task, so their executive control was divided. Participants had a difficult time not looking at the reward-based colored circles, even though they were being paid to ignore them. The circles were harder for participants to ignore in the high-memory-load group.

The Executive Control Function Is Constantly at Work

Understanding the brain’s executive control function is important to gain more of an understanding of how to cope with triggers.

Executive function is often linked to self-regulation. These are the mental processes that let us multi-task, plan, focus our attention and remember items such as instructions. The brain uses executive function skills to eliminate distractions, set goals, control impulses and prioritize tasks.

Children aren’t born with these executive control functions. Instead, they develop them over time. Adverse environments can impair the development of executive functions. Thus, some people will have a harder time managing or developing executive control functions.

Addictive Triggers Are Harder to Ignore Under Stress

People need to be able to give their full attention to ignore environmental reward signals successfully. However, self-control has its limits. Executive control functions can help us overcome unwanted reward signals, which in some cases could be drug addiction triggers. However, when those resources are strained, it’s harder to ignore reward cues, which means when someone is under stress, dealing with triggers in addiction could be harder.

Essentially, it could be harder to stop addiction if you’re under a lot of stress. If you already know you’re facing a lot of stress, it’s important to avoid environments and situations that might lead to temptation.

Strengthening Executive Control to Improve Addiction Outcomes

Overcoming addiction triggers requires executive function, which is harder to do when our brains are trying to remember other information.

Strengthening executive control could be part of a treatment program for someone dealing with addiction. Strengthening executive control to overcome addiction triggers can be done in a variety of ways. For example, some strategies include blocking access to short-term temptations and setting goals to show ourselves the value of achieving them. Following daily routines, even for leisure activities, can also help manage impulse control. Peer monitoring can also help to provide accountability and consequences.

More research will likely be conducted to look at the role of executive functions in the addiction treatment process as a way to improve outcomes. The results of ongoing research could prove beneficial from the people who struggle with addiction and managing addiction triggers.