Trigger happy.

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If you are suffering from long-term mental health problems, you will probably find that any episode is preceded by some sort of trigger. Identifying your own triggers can be a useful skill in avoiding or minimising the severity of an episode. It can take time to work out what sets you off, or makes you feel worse. But self-awareness can be the most valuable tool at your disposal when managing your condition or dealing with an oncoming crisis.

It’s not selfish to spend time working out what makes you feel bad. It’s taking responsibility for yourself and your mental well-being. Sometimes the triggers may be obvious, or it may seem there is no particular cause for the way you feel. I’ve found that if you look hard you might find triggers so subtle, your mind didn’t acknowledge them at the time.

Therapy can help you work out what triggers your moods and behaviour, but long waiting lists and limited sessions could mean you only scratch the surface. It can only be as successful as the honesty and self-awareness you bring to the sessions anyway. It can be useful to do some self-analysis before your first appointment and have a list of ideas about why you may be feeling the way you do.

Triggers can also change over time. The things that trigger me to feel anxious or depressed now are not the same as when I was younger. I am relatively well at the moment, or ‘sub-clinical’ as the medical profession would say. This has given me an excellent platform to be able to look back over various periods of past depression and anxiety to work out what may have set them off. In doing so, I hope I can learn from them and possibly avoid any severe episodes in future. I don’t see this as ‘dwelling on the past’ or not being able to move on; it’s more of an evaluation of my experiences and self-protection insurance policy.

Everyone will have different triggers, but in the spirit of honesty and sharing, I’m going to list some of mine and show how identifying them has led to me being able to make some drastic positive changes to my life.

The main trigger to my most recent bout of depression and anxiety was my Dad dying suddenly, 5 years ago. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this caused me a lot of problems; it was a massive shock to the system and it was normal to be struggling as a result.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the aftershocks and complete inability to function which followed. His death set off a chain reaction of problems and although I sought medical help, I don’t feel that I received the right support. It’s only now, five years away from this that I can look at it rationally and think that all my symptoms seemed to match up with post-traumatic stress disorder. I really wish that one of the millions of doctors I saw at the time had diagnosed this correctly.

The practical upshot of this was that I lost all ability to control my moods and function normally. I was hideously depressed and suffering from severe anxiety and flashbacks, whilst simultaneously trying to keep my job and appear ‘normal’.

Thoughts, situations, people and events which I would normaly be able to deal with were triggering horrendous lows and anxious meltdowns. I was a wreck for years.

I’ve had to learn almost how to ‘re-wire’ my brain so that I could function again and experience some sort of joy out of life.

Part of this was the natural process of getting over my Dad’s death, but most of it was identifying the numerous triggers which were causing the aftershocks and meltdowns. It was difficult, especially when I felt that I was constantly on one of those death-defying rollercoaster rides. The main triggers are listed below:-

1) Anything connected with death. Of course, death is all around us so I’ve had to learn to cope with the idea of death as a part of life. I’ve accepted that I will always be over-sensitive to anything death related and be aware that it is a major trigger. For this reason, I avoid any funerals that it is not strictly necessary for me to attend. I don’t visit my Dad’s grave and I don’t mark the anniversary of his death. I turn over the TV if there are any references to dying or death and I don’t allow myself to ruminate about it. I tell myself that although death is traumatic, I will be able to get through it if anyone else dies because I’ve survived this experience. Really I could do with everyone staying alive for at least 5 years to give me a break from it. People, please try your best!

2) Being tired. Unfortunately, I am tired all the time as I have M.E. I’ve found that this can disturb all my carefully rewired brain settings in an instant. When I’m tired, I have a lot less control over my moods. My brain likes to gravitate towards topics I’d rather not think about. Thoughts, images and feelings come into my head in a random and disjointed way and it makes me feel confused and out of control. There is a level of extreme tiredness that I have only experienced since I got M.E which is similar to feeling drunk. This is a bad and not enjoyable drunk sensation that makes me feel like throwing up. Once it has gone this far, I have about half an hour to get to bed otherwise an extreme anxiety episode will follow that can go on for 12 hours or more. Now I’ve identified the damage that tiredness can cause, I prioritise rest, relaxation and sleep. As soon as my trigger radar picks up progressive tiredness, I act quickly to avoid my moods worsening. If I find myself stuck in the ‘drunk zone’ whilst travelling or in a situation where I can’t go straight to bed, I tell myself that the thoughts, feelings and mood I am experiencing are tiredness related and not a real reflection of how things are.

3) Being asleep. I know this seems crazy because I need a lot of sleep to cope with my M.E and mental health problems as detailed above. But sleep and especially dreaming seem to totally mess with my head. Again, it seems to disturb all the rational re-programming I’ve done in the day and my brain sees it as a chance to go on a frenzied free-for-all. The dreams I have are bizarre, disturbing and downright fucking insane. I had one last week where a man came and removed my brain and cut it into 50 pieces. He laid them all out in rows of 10 and then started eating it, piece by piece. I felt that ‘I’ was in a piece of brain in the back row, but when he ate a chunk, I could feel pain in all the pieces. Luckily my partner heard me making weird noises and woke me up. It makes me so mad that I have to dream shit like this. I don’t watch horror films or anything remotely disturbing. It’s all a product of my own inscrutable head. I thought my brain was supposed to be on MY side? I wish I could dream about kittens and fields of flowers. I deal with this by forcing myself to get up and on with my day. My normal routine seems to rebalance the order of things and I try not to dwell on these stupid night terrors.

3) Feeling alone or lonely. This is a trigger I’ve had all my life, although it has picked up it’s intensity since my Dad died. It’s an interesting one because I do love my own company and need a lot of time to do my own thing. Plus,I have a partner, family and friends I can talk to along with numerous Facebook pals and support groups I belong to. So it’s been tricky getting to the bottom of how and why feeling lonely is a big issue. I think it’s roots are in my teenage years, when due to extreme shyness and lack of social skills, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. Some of it comes from years of not being able to talk about my depression and anxiety; from feeling like I couldn’t be myself with people or that I had to hide my problems. I think some of it is also due to spending excessive amounts of time at home alone with Neutropenia related illness. I’ve realised that as soon as I start feeling ill, it automatically triggers the lonely feelings because I don’t know how much time I’m going to spend cut off from the world. As soon as I feel a sense of loneliness coming on, I force myself to interact with people. I remind myself of all the support I have around me and I put the TV and computer on if I’m stuck at home ill. Seeing humans on telly and chatting on Facebook is sometimes enough to get me through if I am going through a tough time.

4) Being surrounded by people all the time. I know, I’m a mass of contradictions! This can send me mental just as much as too much me-time. It manifests itself as extreme irritation and claustrophobia. I’m still working on getting the balance right between company and solitude. But I’ve realised there is nothing wrong with taking time out for a solitary walk if on a group holiday, or taking lunch alone if work is busy and frenetic.

5) Being bored. I get bored very easily and it is an absolute recipe for disaster. My mind will instantly wander onto all kinds of unsuitable topics and mental mayhem will ensue. Popular choices include the meaning of life, the nature of reality and why are we here? As I’ve spent most of my life pondering these weighty issues and not arrived at any conclusions, I’m not allowed to think about them anymore. I realised that all the great thinkers, philosophers and scientists had already spent years on these topics and not arrived at any answers, so what’s the point in me wrecking my own head over it all? If I get bored and these thoughts come into my head I tell myself to stop it. I remind myself that life is for living and go and do something less stupid instead.

6) Music and background noise. This one took me a while to pick up on as it is what I’d call a subtle trigger. I realised I can feel suddenly depressed or extremely agitated if there is a moving soundtrack on TV or a sad song playing on the radio or in a cafe. Anything in a minor key can set me off, even if the music is technically beautiful. In the past I loved this kind of music, but post Dad’s death, it triggers extreme mood swings. Ditto any repetitive noise, such as roadworks,traffic, phones ringing and the fan in our bathroom. I can’t avoid all of these things but being aware of their effect is very useful.

7) Changes in routine. I know this may seem an odd one for someone who is easily bored, but I function best these days when everything is more or less the same. I’ve always been a creature of habit but this has now been taken to the next level, like everything else. I think it’s again due to the shock of my Dad going. He was literally here one minute and gone the next. My subconscious has obviously decided that everything now must be more or less predictable to offset this. Work days are now bizarrely, the times when I feel most stable. The whole day follows a set routine and structure wheras being off on holiday, or going away does not. I’m annoyed that it’s now ‘fun’ things that cause me massive problems and mood swings. I used to love being off work and could quite happily mill around for the whole summer break. I still like it, but I’ve learned I have to implement a different routine and can’t float around at leisure. If I let the days go by, I end up feeling lost, disconnected, anxious and adrift. Going on overnight trips or holidays has become fraught with difficulty as the transition brings on severe anxiety. It doesn’t matter how much I’m looking forward to it, I can’t avoid being up all night with anxiety before I go. The first night on arrival is usually fucked too, as I adjust to a new routine. I’d never let it stop me, but it’s a fucking pain in the arse and very debilitating. I tell myself I’ll be fine when I get there and will enjoy it because this is always true. I never want to become one of those people who is ruled by their anxiety. So what if you arrive on holiday or to stay with someone looking a bit mental? It’s better than not arriving at all.

These are the main triggers that I’m dealing with right now. There are more, but I don’t want this post to resemble the length of War and Peace. I’m delighted to find that writing about triggers hasn’t triggered anything nasty, so this is a plus point! Why not have a go at writing a list of your own?

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3 responses »

  1. great post – and it is not a twin of War and Peace:) I have many of the same triggers. Mine was also my father dying in 2009. Stuff I never, ever expected came up out of the blue. Then the next big trigger was my friend’s death in conjunction with a boyfriend who decided to let go of us – he could not be the friend I was to him when he was going through his onslaught of anxiety and panic attacks. it was all too much and it came to a head during the holidays – anniversary of my mom’s death, my first dog’s death and then holidays with no family around. My dad’s bday, my son’s bday, my bday, my mom’s bday, divorce anniversary, the old wedding anniversary and the 1 year anniversary of my friend’s death and the flashbacks of being totally blindsighted – he wasn’t sick, only 51, i saw him one day and the next i found him dead. Believe me, if I could chop December through March off of the calendar I would. I kills me inside. This past year was the absolute worst. I never, ever felt this bad. ever.

    • I’m really sorry to hear you have had such a difficult time. Life can throw up some incredible challenges and death is the most difficut of all I think. You have done brilliantly to get through all this and find the will to keep going. I can’t imagine how hard the last year must have been for you. It’s amazing that you have found the strength to be able to write about it all and share it with the WordPress community. To have the tenacity to keep going and keep blogging shows so much inner resilience. I too would chop December to March off the calendar as I have my Dad’s anniversary and his birthday in February. I think we should campaign to make this happen! Thank you for sharing your experiences with me.

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