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What I’ve learnt about triggers

Today I’d like to talk about triggers and the importance of learning to identify them to improve our mental health.

So to start with – What is a trigger?

A trigger is something external that causes uncomfortable thoughts or emotions for your mental health. The term was originally used typically to refer to trauma, a smell or sound that brought you back to the trauma event. However, it has since been expanded to be used more widely across all mental health issues.

Why is learning about your triggers important, you ask?

For us to learn to improve our mental health we first need to know what causes us poor mental health. This may be genetic factors outside of our mental health, or environmental factors within our control. Regardless of which of those it is there are usually still certain events that can exacerbate the issue. These are our triggers.

Reactions to triggers may be in the form of uncomfortable feelings such as: increased anxiety, panic, depression or intrusive thoughts. Such as: why am I not good enough? why does everybody hate me? I’ll use one of mine as an example. I suffer from an anxiety disorder and one of my triggers is another person in the room being stressed or angry. It heightens my anxiety and leads to intrusive thoughts along the lines of what I’ve done wrong to cause that.

How do we learn to identify what our personal triggers are, then?

One of the most helpful ways I find to identify your triggers is to keep a diary. In this diary you will want to add any event that leads your mental health to worsen, either long term or short term. Some of these may triggers that set you off regularly, some might be rare, and others may be triggers you didn’t even know existed until they happened! We are constantly evolving in our journey with mental health issues. It’s okay if you find new triggers after you thought you’d identified them all.

Now that we’ve worked out what our triggers are, what do we do with them?

Make an action plan. This is a plan that allows you to manage your reaction to the triggers in your life. You’ll want to use any previous coping skills you’ve learnt as tools for keeping yourself well when things are difficult. Examples of these may be practicing mindfulness, yoga, grounding techniques, removing yourself from the situation and going for a walk or journaling. Some of these may need practice before you become accomplished at using them to calm yourself and that’s okay! We’re all learning as we go on these things. Write these coping skills down on another page in your trigger diary and refer to them as soon as you start to feel like something is causing you to feel stress. If they work, great, action plan complete. However, if something doesn’t work for you that’s fine, you can remove it from the plan. If you don’t yet have any skills that work for you then have a look online for healthy ways people cope with their issues, seek help from a local charity or see your primary care doctor to get a referral to therapies such as CBT.

I hope this helps somebody at the start (or really at any point) in their mental health journey to learn that although we can’t change our feelings, we can control our reactions to them to a certain degree.

“There is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left to the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone’s business” 

– Vikram Patel

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