Mental illnesses and triggers: how to avoid triggers..can you avoid them?

For some people recovering from mental illnesses, reestablishing your direction in life can be arduous. For those who are hospitalised and are reintroduced into reality it can be even more difficult, due to the safety net a hospital treatment setting provides. From my experience in a children’s psychiatric ward I found that I was sheltered from the real world. There were nurses around 24/7, you had scheduled meal times and activities, and you rarely left the ward besides from attending the hospital school, or if you had a visitor during the specific visiting times. It was easier to focus your full attention on recovery when every minute of everyday was structured, and the right people were around to help you through your struggles. Fast forward to real life and everything is overwhelming. You can’t control what people say or do. Nor can you rely on your supporting nurses to tell you what to eat, and how to manage the guilt. Although, you’re not entirely thrown in at the deep end, as there is often outpatient treatment put in place for your reintroduction into society.
But whether sufferers of mental illnesses have been hospitalised or not, reclaiming your life after, or while recovering, is extremely difficult. Deciding the best course of action to protect yourself from triggering situations can prove to be near impossible. And this is why many people struggling with mental illnesses relapse during recovery.

For people with eating disorders, for example anorexia nervosa, the triggers can include: seeing someone extremely thin, seeing someone eating less than you, having friends or family talk about calories and diets, and exercise. It is certain that a recovering anorexic will encounter many of these triggers while in recovery. In this day and age the media can also prove triggering by putting pressure on people to look a certain way. This cannot be avoided unless you resign entirely from all forms of social media, and then still you may glance at an article online or in the paper. There are triggers all around.
For people with depression, the triggers could be from someone saying things such as ‘there are people worse off than you’ or ‘you’re so lazy’. Phrases like these can set off feelings of worthlessness and prompt thoughts linked also to the low self esteem that many people with depression struggle with. When people struggling with depression see all their friends going out, perhaps through social media, it can be hard to suppress the feelings of loneliness, which leads to feeling unwanted and hopeless. With depression, it’s a fine line between challenging yourself and protecting yourself. It’s different to an eating disorder like anorexia because you have to eat to survive, whereas you don’t have to leave your bed if you don’t want to, or go out and do activities that you used to enjoy. I suppose the triggers for depression are more complex and are more likely to be more individual to the person than the triggers for an illness like anorexia.
Overwhelming situations are different to everyone. For some, what may be overwhelming e.g. going to a public place, may be a piece of cake for others. Recovering from anxiety can mean that anything and everything can trigger your anxious thoughts and feelings. For those suffering with social anxiety, we can identify that the anxiety is triggered by social situations where the sufferer feels uncomfortable. Perhaps they can avoid these more anxiety provoking events and situations in their everyday lives, for example big occasions such as weddings or parties. Or perhaps the anxiety is provoked by even the smallest social interaction e.g. having to talk to the person at a supermarket checkout.

There is a general idea that certain places can trigger you because you are reminded of past behaviours, or more difficult times. Take binge eating for example. Often, binge eaters eat in solitary, and so if you used to eat alone in your room during binges it may prove difficult for someone in recovery to eat in their room again without feeling triggered.
For people recovering from depression or anxiety, perhaps they too spent a lot of time in their room or a particular place when they were feeling very low or anxious. And perhaps returning to that room for too long can provoke those same feelings. Associating a place with particular feelings is often a causal trigger.

Now there is the question. Is it possible to completely avoid all these triggers?
The answer is no. You can’t avoid your friends because they conform to a society advocating diet culture. Of course you can choose the people you want to be your friends, so in that respect we do have an element of control in protecting ourselves from triggering behaviour. But there is no predicting what they will say or do that could be a trigger for you.
You also can’t avoid ever seeing someone thin, or someone exercising.
You can’t avoid speaking to people in fear that they’ll say something wrong.
You can’t avoid certain places, e.g. your bedroom, where you feel triggered.
The harsh reality of all of this is that we can’t control the world around us. We can only control ourselves. And many mental illnesses are indirectly linked to feeling out of control. But we can control our own actions. We can choose to be triggered and act upon it, resorting to old and destructive behaviours. Or we can choose to recognise the trigger and challenge it. We can speak up if we hear something that makes us feel a certain way, e.g if talking about calories makes you feel uncomfortable, or if talking about something is making you anxious. We deserve to be heard and respected. Granted, we can’t speak up about every little thing that makes us feel uncomfortable because we have to find ways of coping with our emotions healthily, but there are some things that we can speak up about. We can ask to change the subject in a conversation if it makes us anxious, or ask to leave a shop if we feel too overwhelmed. Obviously we cannot ask to leave a restaurant halfway through a meal, or ask to change the subject at every moment we feel anxious, but we can make certain small gestures to protect ourselves from triggers. We can also try our best to remind ourselves that the thoughts and feelings which were prompted by the triggers, do not define us. For example, that feeling of loneliness one may feel when they see other people going out and having fun together, is just a feeling. It does not have to escalate to thoughts of being a burden, or being unwanted, or even feeling hopeless and possibly suicidal. It is through intervening with these depressive thoughts that we can challenge them.
I think I have come to the conclusion, that living with mental illnesses nowadays, whilst encompassed by the influence of social media in particular, is hard. And while I do believe in a full recovery, I believe it takes a lot of work, patience and time to be fully recovered. The battle against any mental illness is a long and difficult one. And it is not made easier by the reality of the world we live in with all its triggers. But I think that sufferers need to first find a way to cope healthily alongside a society filled with triggers before they can begin to fully recover. They need to embrace the triggers as challenges to their recovery in which they can only win and move forward from. These challenges will only aid in shaping the recovery process. It is fight or flight, and I believe that running away from these triggers, giving into your thoughts and mental illness, is never the answer. “If it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you.” Fred Devito

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