The Ultimate Guide to Identifying (and Redirecting) Your Porn Triggers

The great military strategist Sun Tzu once said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” In the battle against porn, knowing your triggers and the triggers around you is critical to victory.

Therapists often use the acronym “HALT” to describe triggering states that can lead to addictive behavior: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. This is a good place to start when thinking about your triggers. But everyone is different and everyone has different triggers—especially when it comes to porn.

It’s impossible to identify every possible trigger. However, it may be helpful to think about three big categories of porn triggers:  environmental, physical, and emotional. We’ll explore some of the different ways these triggers manifest themselves and look at practical strategies to redirect them.

1. Environmental Triggers

Porn triggers are all around us. We live in a hyper-sexualized society. Advertising and entertainment are hyper-sexualized. Porn lurks around every corner of the internet. In sexualized environments, it can be hard to avoid triggers that threaten to push you off the path to recovery.

Environmental triggers call for situational awareness: know where you’re going and what you’re going to face. It’s important to remember some places are more likely to be triggering than others. You’re less likely to be confronted with sexual temptation at church than at the beach. You’re more likely to encounter triggering images at the mall than at the post office.

Michael Johnson tells the story of a triggering website he encountered:

“I was on the Tennessee Titans’ website looking up the game schedule and there it was: The Cheerleader Button. On one side, I heard a voice say, ‘That’s not porn. No one’s going to be naked. Everyone is going to be fully clothed [relatively speaking, of course]. There’s not going to be anything you’ll have to confess later.’”

  • Is there a place you frequent that triggers you?
  • Are there TV shows or movies you watch that trigger you?
  • Are there websites that trigger you?

It may be the cheerleader button. It may be a sex scene in your favorite movie or the Victoria’s Secret advertisements at the mall. What environmental triggers can lead you down the path to porn?

Redirecting Strategies for Environmental Triggers:

There are two kinds of environmental triggers: avoidable and unavoidable. The strategies for each are different.

Many environmental triggers are avoidable if you’re willing to go the extra mile. We often face triggering situations simply because we’re too proud to admit our vulnerability. But avoiding environmental triggers is not a sign of weakness.

Battle Tip 1: Avoid Confrontation

Former Navy SEAL commander and Brazilian Ju Jitsu expert Jocko Willink is about as tough a tough guy as you can get. But when it comes to threatening situations, he has simple advice: “Avoid confrontation whenever possible.”

Most confrontations can easily be avoided by simply taking note of your environment. It’s not weakness to recognize you can win without fighting. If this is true for a battle-hardened martial arts expert, it’s certainly true for people trying to overcome porn.

Are you “situationally aware”? Are there triggering environments that you can avoid to ensure your ongoing victory in the fight against porn? It may mean missing out on some enjoyable things—are you willing to do this? If you’re not sure, try this. Think about your last porn binge, then go back to what you were doing right before that. Was it something you could have avoided?

Many people find that just being alone with a computer is an environmental trigger. Can this be avoided? Can you plan ahead to make sure you’re busy with friends on weekends or other times you might be alone? A friend who lived alone once gave me his laptop for a time to avoid this trigger. I knew another young man who removed his bedroom door to avoid the environmental trigger of being alone.

Even if you don’t go to these extremes, you can use Covenant Eyes filtering and Screen Accountability on your devices, or parental controls on your TV.

Battle Tip 2: Remove the Trigger

In Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus says that it’s better to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye than to stumble into sin. In other words, you won’t have victory if you aren’t willing to sacrifice some convenience or pleasure to avoid environmental triggers.

But what about the unavoidable environmental triggers? Perhaps it’s a pop-up ad you didn’t know was coming or a billboard on the highway.

In The Porn Circuit, Sam Black offers a simple three-step response: alert, avert, affirm. First, alert yourself to the environmental trigger. Understand it for what it is, and recognize the danger. Second, avert your eyes. Look away, or remove yourself completely from the environment if possible. Third, affirm your victory—you’ve just successfully defeated an environmental trigger!

To this we add a fourth: tell your ally. Whether you easily overcome the trigger or find yourself struggling, talk to your allies. Tell them about your environmental triggers. When you have allies, they’re on your side in both victory and defeat.

2. Physical Triggers

How can our physical condition trigger the desire for porn? How can we avoid this? The first and last acronyms in HALT are physical conditions: hungry and tired. By optimizing your physical condition, you will be better equipped to fight porn.

How can you do this? Know your physical triggers and work to avoid them. Like environmental triggers, physical triggers can often be avoided.

Many people are tempted to look at porn because they are too worn-out and unmotivated to do anything else. Others find themselves tempted to look at porn to relax and unwind after a long day. Think about your physical condition when you’re triggered, and what led to that condition. Ask these questions:

  • Are you eating well? Are you eating too much or too little?
  • Have you been drinking enough water?
  • What about too much caffeine?
  • Are you exercising regularly? Do you exercise too much?

By making an accurate assessment of your physical condition, you can plan ahead to optimize your condition to avoid physical triggers. Create a battle strategy that puts you in the right physical condition to fight porn.

Many physical triggers are unavoidable. We all get tired, hungry, and stressed. Knowing your own physical condition is important because it informs the right strategy for tackling your triggers. Are you restless and agitated from too much caffeine? In this case, sitting down to read a book may not be an effective redirection strategy.  Are you worn-out and tired from a long day of work? In this case, trying to exercise might be counterproductive.

You want to redirect the trigger from a position of strength, not weakness.

Redirecting Strategies for Physical Triggers:

Once you have an accurate assessment of the physical trigger, you can take steps to redirect it.

Battle Tip 3: Find healthy alternatives to watching porn.

  • Eat something healthy, like raw fruit, vegetables, or nuts.
  • Drink some water non-caffeinated tea.
  • Watch a (non-triggering!) TV show or read a book to relax.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Do some push-ups or jumping jacks.

Talking to your allies can be an effective means of redirecting physical triggers. You need an ally to help. A phone call or text message can be an incredible source of strength in the face of physical triggers.

Battle Tip 4: Know Your Limits

You have limited physical resources. Sun Tzu said “You can’t strengthen your vanguard without weakening your rear-guard.”

In other words, if you’re pushing too hard in other areas of your life, you may be sapping your capacity to fight porn. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Plan ahead and prioritize your physical resources to fight porn.

3. Emotional Triggers

Counselor David Powlison tells the story of Tom, a single man in his late thirties who struggled with porn and masturbation, despite making every effort to stop. Finally, Powlison asked him when it was that he struggled.

Tom said, “I’m tired and lonely on Friday nights. I think about my single friends on dates and my married friends with their wives and I feel sorry for myself. I get angry at God because I think he owes me a wife, and I don’t have one. By nine o’clock, the temptation to sexual sin is overwhelming, and I give in” (David Powlison, Sexual Addiction, pp. 11-12).

Notice the emotions that Tom mentions: angry, lonely, and feeling sorry for himself. These are emotional triggers to porn. Emotions can be positive or negative. They can be brought on by environmental and physical triggers, or they can be completely irrational.

Since emotions are so complex, even experts have a hard time agreeing on how to understand and categorize them. But, you don’t need to be a psychologist to know yourself and understand your emotional triggers. Think about your emotions the last time you were triggered. How did you feel?

Anger:

Tom is not the only one who identifies anger as an emotional trigger. For many, anger is a motivator to act out in a variety of destructive behaviors. There are different degrees and kinds of anger too—it might be frustration, bitterness, or even rage.

Sometimes, there are legitimately angering situations you may face. Psalm 4:4 says, “Be angry, yet do not sin; on your bed, search your heart and be still.”

In other words, you may have been wronged. But even this is no excuse to sin. Rather than acting out in response to anger, the psalmist encourages you to “search your heart and be still.”

In searching your heart, you will find the root causes of anger, what sins you need to confess, what expectations you need to let go of.

James 1:20 says, “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Sadness:

Sadness and similar emotions are another common trigger.  Feelings of loss, disappointment, or loneliness, and other depressive emotions are frequent triggers. In Tom’s story, his anger was accompanied by feelings of sadness and self-pity. There are a wide range of “downer” emotions that can trigger acting out with porn.

There are many psalms that wrestle with sadness. Psalm 130 describes waiting for the Lord “in the depths of woe.”

Fear:

Porn can seem like a familiar and comforting friend in the face of fear or uncertainty. Perhaps you’re facing a new job or relationship challenges. The feeling of being vulnerable or out of control is a significant trigger for many, since porn gives the temporary illusion of control.

Psalm 34 offers wonderful comfort to anyone who faces fearful circumstances. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (34:4).

Rather than succumbing to the lure of sin, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (34:8).

Happiness:

“Downer” feelings aren’t the only triggering emotions that can lead to porn. Feeling happy, confident, or in control can lead to porn, particularly if you let down your guard.

In my own life, the times when I feel the best about myself are the times when I’m least likely to seek accountability. I feel like I don’t need it. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Maybe you’re feeling happy about the victory you’ve experienced over porn—great! Celebrate that. But happiness can trigger carelessness or neglect for the strategies that helped you succeed in the past.

Redirecting Strategies for Emotional Triggers

Once you’ve identified a triggering emotional state, what do you do then? How do you redirect it? Remember the “alert, avert, affirm” strategy we used for environmental triggers? The steps are the same.

Battle Tip 5: Be Alert to Your Emotions.

Acknowledge them when they are there, and explore the root causes. You can start by keeping a journal to log your emotional state when you find yourself triggered. David Powlison says:

“Keeping this journal will help you see more of what is going on in your struggle. As you start to grapple with your circumstances, your desires, your sins, your guilt, and your Savior, you will see that your problems call for deeper grace” (David Powlison, Sexual Addiction, p15).

Battle Tip 6: Avert Triggering Emotional States

It’s not enough to be alert to your emotional triggers. The next step is to avert them, and this can be challenging. It means being honest about circumstances and relationships. It means digging deep into your soul and finding out what motivates you—your hopes and fears, what you love, and what you hate.

Powlison gives these suggestions for your emotional trigger journal: 1) describe your circumstances 2) describe your desires 3) describe your sin 4) describe your guilt 5) describe how Jesus helped you.

The journal is a great place to start this process of averting your emotions, but you’ll want to share what you find with your ally. Carl Stewart says, “Simply acknowledging your thoughts and feelings to another person actually calms these feelings. It regulates them.”

Battle Tip 7: Affirm Your Emotions With Positive Self-Talk

Lastly, you need some positive self-talk to affirm the correct emotional response. Note Powlison’s last recommendation for your journal: “Describe how Jesus helped you.” This is where you affirm the victory that is found in Jesus, and the reality of what it means to be saved by Jesus. He’s the one who can ultimately save you from porn and the thoughts and feelings that trigger your desire for porn.

Affirm the forgiveness and healing from past wrongs that is found in Jesus, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Develop a Proactive Strategy

Which of these triggers describe you? Do you find yourself triggered by your environment, your physical condition, or your emotional state? Most likely, it’s a combination of the three. By identifying these triggers, you and your allies can develop a proactive strategy to redirect them and defeat porn for good.

Once you have identified your triggers, a great next step is to download Hobbies and Habits. This free ebook will give you creative ideas and helpful tips to redirect your triggers and harness the power of habit to quit porn for good. Changing your environment and instituting healthy hobbies can help you live porn free!