Mental health presents itself to us in different ways and there are lots of overlap and similarities. But for the most part, it’s an intensely subjective experience. What brings on feelings of anxiety or depression, stress or anger can be so different to other peoples, that you might not recognise them at first. Identifying your triggers is the first step to recovery but being aware of them on a day to day basis might not be really all that easy or obvious.
Most of the information out there refers to general symptoms and triggers, often for parents or family members, but understanding your own emotions is just as, if not more, important. Sometimes they don’t appear as you expect them to.
“MINDS ARE UNIQUE. They go wrong in unique ways. My mind went wrong in a slightly different way to how other minds go wrong. Our experience overlaps with other people’s, but it is never exactly the same experience.” – Matt Haig
What are triggers?
Triggers can be situations, places, conversations or words that prompt or increase mental health symptoms/reactions. Commonly used in association with PTSD, triggers are also applicable to issues such as depression and anxiety, eating disorders or substance abuse.
These can be internal, as well as environmental, and can vary from wide causes, to very specific places, smells or words.
For example, my anxiety gets triggered when I’m in crowded places.
My depression gets triggered by the word ‘stroppy’. Which might give you an insight into what sort of child I was, but that’s a story for another time.
People might have a few triggers, or lots of them. Songs that bring up bad memories, significant dates, sounds, people, making phone calls.
Internally, triggers can be pain, tiredness, loneliness, anger or feeling overwhelmed. When you feel your needs are not being met can be a big emotional trigger.
They are strongly tied to our emotions, often originating from our childhood, such as: being rejected, being abandoned, being blamed, someone not making time for you or making fun of you. As we grow up, we hold onto these events, and as adults, similar situations can trigger these feelings of guilt, shame, anger or sadness.
How to identify mental health triggers
Generally speaking, observation. Taking note of when symptoms spike and what brought it on. It’s not always easy. When you’re struggling with mental health, taking a step back to analyse what exactly happened, isn’t really an easy thing to do. Overtime, you begin to recognise patterns. You can look back at past times and be able to recognise that what happened to set you off.
Sometimes they are obvious. I know that my anxiety is triggered by crowds, by noise and an overload of sensory stimulation. I know this, from every time I’ve been in a busy shop, in a pub or restaurant, every time I’ve been jostled by a crowd. It’s rather hard to avoid.
Often, they are subtle. And suddenly you find yourself feeling bad and thinking that it came upon you out of nowhere. Identifying triggers and their historical root is essential for learning how to manage or heal them and take control over your mental health.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
Are triggers useful?
Yes and no. On the one hand, the fact that a word, place or sound can trigger your mental health is not good at all. But other people say that being able to recognise when your mental health is likely to be set off is useful, meaning you work around the problem, avoid it or prepare yourself for it.
I avoid pubs, because I know they’ll set me off. But I do not like the fact that one word from a family member that has followed me from childhood can push me into an emotional spiral that knocks me off my feet. Or that making a phone call takes a lot of energy. But knowing that does means I can prepare.
How to deal with triggers
There are lots of ways to handle your triggers, once you’ve found the things. From avoidance or distraction, positive self-talk and strengthening support systems (here’s to my mum holding my hand in crowds even though I’m 22) and going down the road of analysing these triggers, most likely delving into the past to re-evaluate your perception of it from a different point of view.
As I said, mental health is subjective. What works for one person might not for another. Figuring out your own needs and coping methods is something you are allowed to spend time doing.
If triggers, and your mental health, interfere with your life, seek help. Therapy or counselling are there to help you understand your mental health and learn to cope or heal accordingly. Never be ashamed to ask for help. And if you know your triggers, tell someone. They can’t help if they don’t know how.