Unexpected Triggers

These past couple of days have been tough, because this weekend marks the anniversary of an incredibly significant and life-changing event that I took part in two years ago. It’s strange because although I’ve been aware that this date has been coming up for some time now, I wasn’t really dwelling on it.

Last year it didn’t affect me all that much. I’ve never had problems with symbolic dates for anything else before; the anniversary of a relative’s death, for example, has never troubled me. I’ve always thought that a day is just a day. Taking that into account and considering I’m someone who takes care to pay attention to patterns in my mental health, it’s not all that surprising that I didn’t really expect much to happen this year either.

What I often forget is that there has been a huge shift in my psychological well-being over the past year. A year ago, I was so snowed under by depression that the heavy black fog over my life made it impossible for me to even notice that I was anxious or traumatised. So the date rolled around and whilst I was aware of it, it had very little effect on me whatsoever because all those feelings were being suppressed for a later date when I would be ready to deal with them.

Fast forward to April/May time this year and I began to feel that fog and suppression lift, which is when all the anxiety and PTSD symptoms came flooding in. Until then depression had acted as a coping mechanism that my brain had used to shield itself from constant flashbacks and nightmares. Once I had lifted that through five months of CBT therapy, the time came to deal with everything else I had been avoiding.

Over the summer, through returning to Mexico, learning new coping strategies and generally getting my life back on track, I managed to leave many of my old triggers and symptoms behind. But on Tuesday, I began to feel some of these bubbling back up again. I found myself walking down Oxford Road, suddenly terrified that I was alone in a public space. I was hanging out with my friends and my head was foggy, and my heightened sense of anxiety made it difficult to concentrate in class. I went to an arts and crafts session with the LGBT society and my brain couldn’t focus on anything but the intense feeling of ‘I need to get out of here’. So I left and caught the next train home.

At first I thought I was missing something really obvious. I thought maybe it was something in my personal life that I wasn’t dealing with or the fact that I just had a really busy week and was feeling stressed out about it. But no, although I can be awkward with personal problems and feelings I’m never usually one to ignore something if it needs to be confronted, nor does busy-ness make me want to curl up in a ball under my duvet and pretend like the world doesn’t exist.

During that train journey home, it dawned on me that what I was actually freaking out about was the upcoming anniversary. Dwelling on the date made my anxiety levels sky-rocket. I realised my fear of attending the concerts I’d booked this week wasn’t down to how busy I was, but the fact that I would be in a crowd, an old trigger that used to give me flashbacks, and the constant state of panic I was feeling is a symptom of PTSD. Now everything was making sense.

Talking about triggers isn’t easy, because trying to explain to somebody who doesn’t experience panic or anxiety as part of their everyday lives that something, that can sometimes be mundane or seemingly harmless, has such a huge psychological impact on you isn’t the easiest thing to do. Part of that comes from that fact that not all triggers are logical, just as mental health disorders hardly lend themselves to logic, and sometimes the person experiencing a trigger-induced anxiety attack can’t even explain why it makes them feel so scared in the first place. Now this isn’t to say that all triggers appear completely illogical. Some of mine certainly make perfect sense to me and to anyone else who knows anything about my past. But that’s just it, they only really make sense to anyone who is AWARE of what is going on. Although my close friends and family are just incredible when it comes to helping me out in tricky situations because they know what’s happening, it’s the times when there is no one on hand to help that things can get really difficult for me.

With all this in mind, I have decided to take these next few days off uni to look after myself, take things as slowly as I need to and surround myself with people who know my illness almost as well as I do. In the past I would have really berated myself for this, worrying that I was regressing or losing it again, or maybe blaming myself for being too weak to handle things. I mean, it is only a date after all. But this time, I’m choosing to see things differently.

Yeah, sure, it’s only a date and other people might think I’m a little nuts for not being able to be alone for a few days, but honestly… who cares? Yes it might seem like ‘just a date’ but that date is representative of so much, so much more that I think I could ever explain to anyone who wasn’t actually there, who didn’t actually live through everything with me. And I am SO past caring about what other people might think it’s almost comical to me that judgements from others did used to bother me. Not everyone is going to understand when it comes to mental health problems, and that is something that I accepted some time ago. The best part is that quite a few people do or at least try their very best to, and it’s those people that I need to be focusing on.

So over the next three or four days there’s going to be a lot of playing things by ear, trying to be as aware of my feelings as I possibly can be and under NO circumstances, getting angry/annoyed at myself for a natural reaction to an illness that I am battling. To be honest, despite constantly feeling nervous and on edge, I can’t help but also feel really proud of myself for dealing with this in such a pragmatic and positive way. It just goes to show how far I’ve come and hopefully, that I’ll soon be able to take all that I’ve learned from my experiences and begin to work towards using them for good.

***

Advice to anyone (including myself) who is dealing with an unexpected trigger:

  • Take it easy. This can be as extreme as removing yourself from the world for a few days, taking on less responsibility at work or simply cancelling events to free up a little more space in your calendar for some all important self-care time.
  • Ask for help. It’s not always possible to just drop everything, I get that. So asking others for help is key. Whether it’s taking on a job for you that you just can’t handle this week or accompanying you on your weekly shop because you can’t bear to go it alone, the presence of other people who love you and support you is invaluable.
  • Go back to the basics. Back in the times when I was severely unwell, my four basic rules for myself were to get up, shower, get dressed and leave the house. In times when I am going through a blip such as this, I remind myself that it is OK to revert back to these rules as a basis for my day whilst I’m figuring out how to deal with this new obstacle.
  • Don’t pressure yourself. If you can’t cope with living your life as you have been doing for the past however-long, don’t get angry at yourself. Give yourself a little time to feel shitty about it then move on, taking things one step at a time. Pressuring yourself to pretend that you’re OK isn’t helping anyone. Be kind to yourself and before you know it, you’ll be right back on track.
  • Take it seriously. Mental health problems are just as serious and just as deserving of attention as physical health problems and should be treated as such. Not everyone is going to have this view, and sometimes that is going to make your life harder especially when things take an unexpected turn. But don’t let their views effect how you care for yourself and deal with your illness. Their misunderstanding is their problem, not yours.
  • Look after yourself. If there’s no way of letting anything go from your diary, if you have no one to talk to and you don’t have time to slow down, make sure you’re doing everything you can to be kind to yourself in your down time. For me, this means putting on an outfit that makes me feel great about myself, even if I don’t leave the house, and listening to podcasts by my favourite feminist comedians on my daily train commute. These small actions, no matter how insignificant they seem, can really help you to keep things together, especially in more challenging times.

A new organisation that I have discovered recently is The Blurt Foundation, which does all sorts of things from podcasts, to inspirational emails, to self care boxes. It’s a nice little pick-me-up kind of website, and I’d recommend checking it out if you’re feeling low. I’ve also got into podcasts over the past couple of months and one of the best ones is the Made of Human podcast, which is hosted by Sofie Hagen (who I’m a little bit in love with) and is all about humans chatting about their lives and figuring out how to human. It’s great, trust me. Finally I’d recommend checking out my new favourite tweeter, a guy called Jesse Cale, who is wonderfully positive and inspiring.

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