Have you ever seen a blog post with a “Trigger Warning” at the top? Have you wondered what that means exactly?
There are a lot of normal everyday things that can trigger symptoms of mental illness like anxiety or panic. For those of you who don’t have a mental illness it might be difficult to understand. Or maybe not. But things that may not affect you could very quickly and without warning cause me or someone with mental illness to “freak out,” so to speak.
With my mental illness, I’ve had times when I had thoughts of suicide or when I had thoughts of hurting myself (yes these are different.) These types of thoughts are known as “intrusive thoughts” because they flash in one’s head without warning and most often without reason. I think that’s why one of my big triggers, which gives me panic and anxiety, is putting the knives away from the dishwasher. I know, strange, right? That was hard for me to say out loud.
Until recently I had never admitted that. But the other day in a mental health peer support Facebook group I posted about it. I had been putting the knives away that day and realized I was actually shaking. I wasn’t just anxious but truly panicked. Sharing in that group was hard since I had never admitted it before, but it was actually quite helpful. So many of my fellows with mental illness could relate, and said they too had that exact trigger. We also talked about other triggers like driving across bridges (one of mine too) or being the first car to drive through an intersection, for example.
Examples of other triggers can be natural disasters; anniversaries of horrible events like 9/11; the death of a public figure; reading horrible news stories; having blood drawn or getting a shot; talking about physical illness; and the list goes on and on. Not all of those things will be triggers for one person necessarily. Each person’s triggers are specific to that person.
I’m sure most people have things like this that bother them or make them nervous, but when they hit a person with mental illness, the feelings are amped up. The anxiety or panic goes well beyond what others might feel, and its shocking to the system and feels just horrible.
So what do we do when something triggers us?
- My first piece of advice is actually to avoid the triggers. Its OK to ask your husband to chop the veggies. Its OK to turn the news off or avoid stories on the web. Its OK to find another route to your destination and avoid that bridge.
- Now, a caveat to the suggestion of avoidance: If your trigger is something that you really would like to be able to do. For example, you think doing it would improve the quality of your life, its possible that avoiding it is not the right answer. If you panic when you flying, for instance. Do you refuse to fly and miss out on opportunities to go on exciting family vacations? You might try facing this trigger head on, with the effort to desensitize yourself. But be careful and make sure you take care of you in the process.
- In the moment, if something triggers you stop what you’re doing immediately, or as quickly as you can.
- Tell someone. Talking about it and saying the words, particularly to someone who’s been there and understands will help take away their power. Find an online support group, like the one I mentioned above. Incidentally you can request to join it here. There’s also a postpartum mood disorder support Facebook group here.
- Talk to a doctor and/or therapist. If your trigger is something that is really ruining your life, working with your doctor or therapist can do a load of good.
- Change your scenery. Often times when I am having anxiety, changing my scenery helps to calm me. If I’m in bed for example, laying on the couch for a bit actually helps sometimes, if you can believe it.
- Do something that calms you. Deep breathing. A yoga stretch. A hot bath or shower. A cup of chamomile tea. Playing a mindless video game. Reading a book.
- Write about it. Do you blog? Do you journal? Try writing it out. Kind of like telling someone, putting the words in writing can actually help.
- Read or watch something funny. Seriously a good laugh goes a long way. YouTube and damnyouautocorrect can be your friend.
- Call the Lifeline: If you’re trigger is so severe that you are in crisis, call the Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
Do you have any other tips in your arsenal? If you don’t have mental illness, do you find you have your own triggers too?