The idea of “trigger warnings” has become a bit of a joke or meme in recent years, making fun of people who have too strong of an emotional reaction to certain ideas. But when it comes to people with mental illness, triggers are a serious part of everyday life.
Psychologist Mariana Plata defines an emotional trigger as, “Any topic that makes us feel uncomfortable…it can vary in each person because we are all struggling with something different.”
If you have depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, or another mental health issue, your personal triggers will vary based on your unique experiences and diagnosis. Here’s some advice on what that means and how you can manage.
Triggers for Depression Relapse
Even when you’re in remission from major depressive disorder, there’s always the stress of knowing another depressive episode may come. People who have one depressive episode are 50% more likely to have a second. After two episodes, the odds go up to 70% for another one, and then to 90% after three episodes.
- Not following your treatment plan – This includes changing your antidepressants without your prescribing doctor’s consent and cancelling talk therapy before discussing it with your therapist.
- Personal triggers, which you can determine in therapy. For example: relationship problems, financial stress or work-related stress.
- Rumination – This is what it’s called when your mind constantly thinks about a problem over and over, trying to fix it. Depression feeds off rumination loops, spiraling you into a new episode. Therapy focused on mindfulness meditation has proven extremely effective at combating this trigger.
How to Manage Depression Triggers
Stay in Talk Therapy
Even when your depression is in remission, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Working through your potential triggers as they happen is vital to ensuring they don’t spiral further. If you have seen the same therapist for a number of years, they’ll be keyed into your specific triggers and can help you when they surface. If things are going relatively well with your depression and you don’t have much to talk about, you can scale back to every other week instead of weekly if you need to.
Studies show that a regular meditation practice can be just as effective as antidepressants for preventing relapses. Combining the two is even more effective. Meditation may seem intimidating, but it’s actually very easy to learn! There are many apps that can help you along, such as Headspace and Insight Timer.
See Your Psychiatrist
If you’re on antidepressant medication, it can be easy to keep refilling your prescription without checking in. Make a point to see your psychiatrist to provide updates, so changes to your treatment plan can be made when necessary.
Try TMS Therapy
If triggers do cause a depression relapse, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may be an excellent option. TMS is a highly effective treatment that works by re-configuring neuronal pathways in the brain that become underactive with depression. It is safe, the sessions are short, and it doesn’t have any of the side effects that come from antidepressant medication. With maintenance sessions, it’s very effective at preventing relapses. This means you can utilize it as a “go-to” when triggers occur and maintain your wellness.
Triggers for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is the mental illness most associated with emotional triggers. The disorder is initially caused by a traumatic event such as:
- Sexual assault
- A violent experience (being hurt or seeing someone get hurt)
- Child abuse
- Experiencing a natural disaster
Following the traumatic experience, people with PTSD will show the following symptoms:
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts
- Keeping physical distance from where the event occurred
- Maintaining mental distance from the event (avoiding thoughts and feelings associated with it)
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts
Triggers that recall the past trauma can cause an emotional reaction that makes these symptoms emerge, and this can be rather intense.
How to Manage PTSD Triggers
How should you manage potential PTSD triggers? It’s a common question, but the answer is unique to you. The most important step you can take is to get the help of a therapist specifically trained to treat PTSD.
An approach like prolonged exposure therapy can be highly effective. It works by slowly exposing you to triggers, so you can confront and processed them. Over time, this aims to reduce PTSD symptoms. Because confronting traumatic experiences can set off a cascade of difficult emotions, this type of therapy needs to be done under the care of a trained professional. There’s a delicate balancing act necessary to help you get more comfortable with your triggers while protecting your mental health.
Once you are working with a therapist, you can set up a game plan for managing your personalized triggers when they come up. Anna Lindberg Cedar is a LCSW who put together an excellent self-care checklist when using social media, which can be triggering for many mental health issues. These include:
- Knowing your PTSD triggers and having a self-care plan ready to go when they happen – She recommends keeping a copy of that plan on your phone that you can read when necessary.
- Don’t actively look for emotional triggers outside of a therapeutic process. When they do inevitably come up, be gentle with yourself.
- If symptoms are particularly bad, use the crisis text line for free support.
Triggers for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OCD is a type of anxiety disorder that feeds off triggers. With OCD, obsessive and disturbing thoughts trigger compulsive rituals. When OCD is left untreated, these rituals can become all-consuming and dominate your life.
How to Manage OCD Triggers
Exposure and Response Therapy (ERP) is a talk therapy for OCD specifically designed to face your triggers and control your reactions. Alongside a specialized therapist, you are gradually exposed to your triggers and learn to manage your response. This involves actively feeling the symptoms of obsessive thoughts. Over time, you can learn not to fear the anxiety response that occurs from these triggers.
Triggers for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined by excessive worry over a wide range of life circumstances. These can include health, finances, relationships, family issues, and more.
How to Manage GAD Triggers
- Find a talk therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy – Studies show CBT to be as effective as medication for treating GAD, with even better long-term benefits. CBT therapy can zoom in on your worst triggers and reframe the thought process behind them so your anxiety is diminished.
- Progressive muscle relaxation – Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that helps release tension in your body created by GAD. PMR guides can be found on meditation apps, and there are many to choose from on YouTube.
- Spend 10 minutes worrying – This therapeutic technique seems counterintuitive at first, but it can be quite helpful. You set a 10-minute timer, and focus all your mental energy on every anxious thought you can trigger. Many patients find that, over time, this practice wears out the mind’s ability to produce anxious thoughts.
Grounding Techniques for Triggers
No matter which diagnosis or types of triggers you have, there are go-to grounding techniques you can use when things get overwhelming. These include:
- Diaphragmatic breathing to slow down your body’s stress response – This regulates your breathing, slows down your autonomous nervous system, gets more oxygen into your brain and body, and sends relaxation signals to your body through the vagus nerve.
- Mindfulness skills to accept your anxious thoughts and feelings so they dissipate on their own
- Short “SOS” meditations available on apps like Headspace® and InsightTimer
The Positive Side of Triggers
Living with triggers that spark mental illness symptoms sounds scary, but there is a benefit. If you know what your triggers are and how they show themselves, you’re well-equipped to come up with a plan that helps you navigate and conquer them when they occur. It’s critical to work with a talk therapist on these triggers, while maintaining psychiatric care like antidepressant medication and/or TMS therapy.