In the world of mental health, you hear the word trigger a lot. Specifically, “What’s triggering you?” Triggers are the little dancing devils that control depression, anxiety and all sorts of feelings. Triggers can be anything and everything. It can be a thought, a person, place, or thing. They tug on your heartstrings and provide these little devils with pleasure while you’re full of heartache and fury. It will result in an automatic fight or flight reaction whether your mental illness is rooted in traumatic experiences, predisposed genetics, or both. More specifically, these biochemical changes are expressed variably based on the way that your neurotransmitters will fire. Sometimes there are no triggers at all and it’s just your brain misfiring which is cause to see your therapist, psychiatrist, or physician. For now, it’s your turn to focus, discover, and intervene based on your specific triggers. Let’s go! *Cue the Inspector Gadget theme song.*
If you follow me on Instagram (@lightprojectstories), you would have seen the picture I posted of myself in grade 9. Today I’ll share with you this intimate story of mine that traces back to that very picture, followed by personal strategies that I use to unplug and combat my triggers.
A few years after that picture was snapped, I finally sought help from a counselor. I learned that my dad was the creator of my anxiety and depression. He was the trigger and that left me confused and frustrated. After all, he was a person in my life called dad – a figure that represents love and support. Knowing what I know now, he was a provider but that’s where it ended. I still respect him for bringing me into this world and sheltering me despite whatever he was battling within himself. Yet I still spent numerous years wrestling with what he was and what a dad should be. I didn’t know how to unplug the trigger in order to manage my anxiety and depression in the best way possible. Every word and action, or lack thereof, that he directed towards me was as if he pulled a trigger and shot me straight in the heart. It was damaging and I don’t think he knows that till this day.
The real trauma started while I was in middle school. I began to realize that everyone had dads who were present. Whether they were supportive or not, they had some sort of interaction with them. In comparison my dad and I never spoke, with the exception of an occasional exchange of “good mornings”. He would drive me to piano lessons but he showed no interest in my life. All I wanted was a, “How are you?” or “How is school going?” One day I was determined to get his attention and did what a 13-year-old knew how to do. I cried and screamed and rolled around in front of his chair while he watched TV after dinner. I had a moment of hope where I might have been obnoxious enough to feel something from him. Something that wasn’t as silent as being in detention. But in return, there was just distance and air between us. I believe that incident led me to my very first anxiety attack, followed by long stretches of depression and questions about my self-worth. Mom – if you ever wondered why your 13-year-old daughter never came home until 9 or 10PM at night – well that’s why. I did everything I could to never return home. He wouldn’t care if I went missing, right? My 13-year-old-self thought it must’ve been her. After all, I made him nice cards and gave him art pieces that I made from school. And I loved him and cared for him even if he didn’t.
The sky opened up when I truly unplugged “dad” from my life. It started when I was 20-years-old when my counselor came up with a great experiment; reconnect with my dad. So I sat beside him and created conversations about anything when he watched TV after dinner every evening. Or if he was at the dining table reading the newspaper, I took that opportunity to try and develop a relationship. Sometimes I’d talk to a wall, other times he would join, but it all depended on his mood. It went on for about 3 or 4 months, until his rage crushed me; it was the last straw. He directed all his anger towards me one day and did exactly what his cowardly personality had been doing since I was a kid. He would throw dishes, slam doors, and create whatever deafening noise he could. This was the general climate of our household. I cried and my anger boiled inside but I witnessed the slow decline in my anxiety and depression that would constantly resurface because of him. Eliminating him didn’t mean that I’d be rid of anxiety and depression permanently but it did mean that I learned how to calm and soothe one trigger. Still, the little bruised and black heart that has grown inside me will never truly return to its natural colour. I’m crying even while I write this because my body twinges and aches re-living this story again. If you’ve been struggling with a similar situation, I urge you to try reintroducing a longstanding trigger into your life. Now I can move on in peace because it provided me with closure even though the outcome wasn’t what I hoped for.
Despite this revolution, the traumatic experience evolved into other triggers such as feelings of being ignored, abandoned or neglected. It’s a whole new warfare. I’ve worked with my counselor, psychotherapist and psychiatrist for numerous years to highlight each of these feelings that are lingering triggers. It has manifested in so many situations but I’ve learned to notice and tackle them so it wouldn’t disarm me constantly. Sometimes this means just wrapping myself in a blanket in bed and breathing. When you begin to pin different triggers on your mental health map, hold on to the details. Take the most recent example you have and write out each action, event and emotion like it’s a full script of your Shakespearean play. The situation can be dramatic or tame; it can be a sleepless night of fighting with yourself or being held hostage at home because of anxiety. I suggest working with a psychotherapist but you can do it at home if money is very limited. There are many books you can borrow or purchase with activities that will help you identify your triggers. Personally, I’ve never liked formal Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) but don’t knock it until you try it!
So what’s your game plan now? I think of strategies like a disaster preparedness plan. Knowing how to unplug specific triggers and tackle them allows me to open and close certain flood gates. I use a number of strategies to cope with different triggers so don’t feel like you need to just stick to one or two. For example, a common trigger for me is when there are a change of plans during a stressful situation. I found it helpful to visualize where the anxiety is in my body and then calming it when I’ve noticed where it is. Let’s say the anxiety is in my stomach and creates an empty nauseous feeling. I try to soothe it with a hot pack or hot tea as a way to fill and warm the area. I have also found that a new and unknown experience is a trigger for me. I use the same strategy but the location is different; it’s usually in my head, neck and chest. In response, I’ll pile on the pillows and blankets to create a lot of weight on me. It’s as if I’m creating a giant cocoon. I flutter out of it like a well-recovered butterfly.
These are just skills. It works part of the time, and in the other moments, it creates more anxiety because it feels like a huge failure when you try and can’t fix yourself. Just remember to breathe, hold on to faith, and try to sleep when the anxiety causes you to believe that you are actually going to explode (or implode) and die. That’s my end game. Sleeping for me is like resetting my brain because I’ll usually wake up and flutter like a butterfly for real. Hence why I’m a walking zombie when I go through weeks and months of anxiety and depression without any triggers. Ain’t no sleep can cure that!
I have plenty more under my belt so if you need some suggestions, comment below. Let’s share our ideas and help a homie out. It’s not easy but teamwork makes the dream work.