Your Toolbelt Blog

Trigger –not just for Roy Rogers anymore–

“Trigger” is a word we’ve thrown about quite a bit in our lingo, which tends to leach any real meaning from the word anymore, so that we end up thinking we know what it means… but not really. “He had a hair-trigger anger problem”…”that movie really triggered me…”…”pull the trigger…” …”he’s really trigger happy…” you get the idea.

So what do I mean when I say “trigger?” Well, a “trigger” in psych lingo is when someone or something or event sparks in us an automatic, and usually, negative reaction that’s extreme for the context of the situation. So, for example, after a restless night, a very long day at work, skipping lunch, and having a run-in with your boss before coming home, you come home and your wife starts complaining that you forgot to take out the garbage before leaving that morning and….you absolutely hit the roof.  In that example, I named four triggers that I’ll be addressing in upcoming posts. Unfortunately, much of the time we’re very much unaware of our triggers, let alone are proactive about discovering ways to mitigate them.

There are other triggers, too, like how we can’t stand our boss because she reminds us of our mother, or how our husband drives us mad clearing his throat in just the same way our fathers did, but those triggers deal with projection and childhood issues, which are better addressed in therapy. In this posting, I am addressing triggers that bring up anxiety and anger, primarily. Anger, by the way, is generally agreed to be a secondary emotion, standing in for the primary feeling, which is unacceptable to the individual to feel (e.g. “that person hurt me, but feeling hurt is vulnerable, I can’t be vulnerable, so I’ll be angry about it instead”).  Anger is a favorite emotion of many men and some women to cover up feelings of anxiety, depression, and vulnerability, so I am including anger here in case what you feel when you’re triggered is anger, and not anxiety.

For the sake of this blog, I am focusing on environmental, situational, and habitual triggers, which we often overlook as the source of our anxiety and depression.  Being both proactive and judicial in your exposure to your triggers will go far in preventing both anxiety and depressed feelings.

How do you know when you’ve been triggered? That’s fairly easy to determine in hindsight and much more difficult to nail down in the moment. All you know is that you were going along just fine, and then, all of a sudden, you’re feeling intensely anxious, or angry, or both. Sometimes, you think you know what the trigger was, and you blame it (or him/her), but later on, you realize that you were overreacting to whatever it was that s/he said, did, or didn’t do. And then you feel like a schmuck. And, guess what, you’ve been triggered, buddy.

The first step is to know what your triggers are. If you can name it, you can tame it, as the common wisdom goes.  How to know what your triggers are? I’ll start you off with the most common one in this posting, and some examples of how to mitigate it, to get you started.  I will then post other triggers this week, in an effort to keep this from being the endless posting.  For the following week, also, I suggest you spend time examining the times when you’ve know you’ve been triggered, and then tracing your steps back to see if you can discover your trigger.  Sometimes it will be a more deep rooted issue, like negative self-beliefs originating from childhood traumas and/or upsets, and we will be addressing how to deal with those more in the coming months. Often, however, it is something not quite so cosmic, and therefore more easily remedied.

Trigger #1 Fatigue. There is no situation in life that fatigue cannot exacerbate. Whenever a client comes to me complaining that their anxiety is through the roof and they “don’t know why,” or they’re super depressed, and it’s just getting worse, but “nothing bad has happened,” two of the first questions I always ask are—how much and how well have you been sleeping lately? True story, this man is brought into an ER by his wife reporting that he was feeling suicidal and had a plan to kill himself, but wife intervened and made him come to the ER instead. They run a full psychiatric exam on him and discover no psychoses, some depression, but not severe enough to explain the suicidal ideation. Then, they finally ask him how much sleep he’s had in the past week. Turns out he had severe insomnia and had barely slept for the past week. They treated him for insomnia, and his depression went away completely as did the suicidal ideation. No joke, you need to get a good night’s sleep.

So what is a good night’s sleep? There are no hard and fast rules about that, and much disagreement in the field. I like to go with what many sleep researchers are now concluding: if you feel fatigued during the day, then you’re not getting enough sleep. You may be “sleeping” enough hours, but if the quality of your sleep is poor, and/or you’re waking frequently, chances are your sleep is inadequate.  Furthermore, we are a chronically sleep deprived nation in the US currently, where we log ridiculously long hours for work and cheat ourselves  even further of sleep in order to fit in all the activities our busy lives require of us. And these are just the folks without children…

How do you mitigate fatigue? Most obviously is to get more sleep, but that is over-simplistic and even unrealistic to many of us. Particularly, those of us who have post-traumatic stress symptoms, and are chronically sleep challenged as a result. Anxiety also plays an awful harmony with insomnia, in which anxiety leads to insomnia, which leads to anxiety, which leads to insomnia, and…you get the idea.

Sometimes, however, the answer lies in correcting your sleep hygiene. How many of you, for example, have a TV in your bedroom? Tsk Tsk. Research shows that TVs and other electronic gadgets negatively impact sleep by overstimulating our brains and disrupting our natural biorhythms.  A good rule to follow is to reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex only (not necessarily in that order).

A few other suggestions are to keep your room as dark and noiseless as possible—with the following exception—white noise machines. They’re worth their weight in gold if you live in a noisy area and can’t control outside environmental noise. Also, remove snorers, if possible, from your bedroom. I know, I know, you love him/her, but you need to love your sleep more if they’re disrupting your sleep nightly with their concert. If the snorer is you, then you may consider undertaking a sleep study, because snoring could be the least of your sleeping troubles.  Keeping a regular schedule to your sleeping and waking routines are also important—i.e. go to bed the same time every night and get up, likewise.

Keeping your evening quiet and relaxing is also helpful.  Do not, upon pain of a sleepless night, try to have a confrontational discussion with your partner just before bed. We, particularly women, do this right before bed often, because, I suppose, in our busy lives, it is the only quiet time during our days that we’re able to have uninterrupted discussions with our partners. But, unless you’re fairly certain that it’s going to be conflict free—don’t do it. You’re tired, they’re tired. It won’t go well. The old adage “don’t go to bed angry with each other,” really has no merit in my book. Generally, couples who go to bed angry, often wake up in a better mood.  Because they’re rested.

These are a few suggestions; I could go on for pages more. Readers let me know if you’d like more, and I’ll post more, but the idea here is to get your brain working on your own sleep routine. What have you been doing to your sleep, and what, if anything has been interrupting it? Start taking note, and correct what you can. I really cannot overestimate the importance of sleep on your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. If you do only one thing to improve your mental health, improve your sleep, it’ll pay you back in dividends.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue with Trigger #2—until then, “breathe, just breathe” (Anna Nalick).

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