Trigger, trigger. Where for art thou, trigger?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of my series for Mental Health Awareness month. The goal is to misspell myths and share my journey with mental illness to continue the conversation on self care and the importance of mental health.

The first time I heard or even understood the concept of the word trigger was during a therapy session.

I had had a difficult couple of days. In retrospect, I wasn’t quite sure why I was feeling the way I felt or why I felt angry in that moment. However, what I do remember was that it was impeding me from living my life in someway. So, it made it’s way to the closest therapy session.

My therapist, who was lovely and amazing as all therapists should be, asked me what triggered it. (I miss her. She was amazing.)

— What do you mean?

— I mean what was the thing that started this sequence of events in your brain to make you feel this way?

— I have no idea.

— You need to pay attention to your triggers.

And that, my lovely readers, is the best advice I have gotten during my mental health journey. Pay attention to the triggers. But…

what the heck is a trigger?

That is when a thing — an event, a situation, a comment, etc — upsets you or makes your anxiety (or other mental illness) go off.

A simple example of how a trigger works comes from the kitchen as I am excellent with food analogies — cooking with pepper. As you cook, the smell tickles your nose and then you sneeze. The smell of the pepper (insert the science of it here) triggered the sneeze.

A good official definition is in this article from the National Alliance on Mental Health, an excellent resource for all things on mental health.

According to them:

“For people with mental health issues, especially those who’ve experienced trauma, some conversations might act as a “trigger.” In other words, the environmental exposure — in casual conversation, in the news, on social media or elsewhere — might cause the person to respond as though they are currently experiencing their past trauma. Triggers evoke different symptoms in different people, but the shared effect is distress. The body and mind can feel as though they’re facing a crisis situation when triggered.”

Oh yes, triggers. Those are pesky things and you have to keep an eye out for them. Setting boundaries helps to keep them at bay, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

I have lots of triggers. So many.

And even with knowing them and setting boundaries, I still don’t know them all. And I may not know something is a trigger until it’s triggered me several times. That’s when I put it on “the list”.

Yes, there’s a list. I am a bullet journal user (I refuse to call it journalist) and I love it. Once of the basic units of information for using and creating your journal is to, what for it, journal is someway. For me, it’s making lists. Lists, I have learned, center me.

Not only do I have your basic to do lists, I have lists about places I want to visit, hobbies I want to try, books I want to read, ways to set boundaries, etc.

One of my many lists keeps track of my triggers. What has set me off.

I know when I’m anxious. It’s a physical thing in my body. The skin on my forearms quivers. It’s difficult to breathe. There’s a fatigue that comes over my body that settles into my bones. This last thing was a difficult lesson, learning the difference between being tired and the fatigue that comes with my anxiety and depression.

That when I have to reflect on that past couple of days or weeks. What was happening in my life to trigger this response? How do I know? Has this similar situation or trigger happened before? Is there a pattern?

These are questions I ask myself every time. I need to know these triggers. I need as much information as I can get to make sure I live my best life.

Because I’m not trying to cure my depression and anxiety, I’m living with it, coping with it. It’s not something that hinders my life, it is something that elevates it. My mental illness forces me to take care of myself, forces me to make myself a priority and forces me to pay attention to my life.

Triggers — listing them, knowing them, working around them, and dealing with them when I identify a new one — makes me become my own best advocate. I wasn’t before but I am now.

Once I identify a trigger, it goes on the list. I make sure that I keep a look out for it and I consider what boundary needs to happen (boundary comes in all shapes and sizes. Again, more on that in an upcoming post).

Daughter of immigrants. Afro-Latina. Mental Health informer. Writer. The intersection between mental health and existence lives in the words on this page.