Here’s the Thing about Mental Illness Triggers #breakthesilence
Anyone who suffers from anxiety, depression, PTSD or other mental illnesses that can be “triggered” knows that there is one thing about triggers that few people understand: it is almost impossible to predict what will trigger you.
We can have some ideas such as graphic imagery pertaining to trauma (hence “trigger warnings”) or certain seasons of the year (see: SAD) but sometimes, something can seem to come out of nowhere and derail months of hard efforts in survival.
The more people that come to recognize this basic truth, the better off all of us will be in dealing with the resulting cascade of symptoms that come from complications with a mental illness. I say this because I was recently triggered by something that I had never imagined I would be triggered by: a mouse.
October is a normal time of year for mice to enter homes in search of warmth and a morsel of food but I still imagined my fortress impenetrable. Probably because last October I was living in an 8th floor apartment and the risk of them was greatly lessened by that fact. So imagine my surprise when I went to the bathroom at 2 o’clock in the morning one night last week and saw one scuttle out of the corner behind the garbage can. It happened so fast that I could barely process it until my brain started screaming one word over and over again: MOUSE.
And pretty soon my mouth was screaming it too and I was beating my husband awake screaming about the vile creature that had dared enter our home. This is all very funny now, but at the time, it triggered a total emotional breakdown during which, I sat on my bed staring at the door to our bedroom, waiting for the satanic rodents to pass by…sobbing…uncontrollably. For hours.
I couldn’t sleep that night or the next and eventually had to go to my mother’s house. By this time, I was totally worn out from exhaustion and worry that regular signs of PTSD started to show in a very pronounced way. I became irritable, snapping at anyone and everyone. I stopped doing anything productive. I wondered if my life would ever be normal again. I wondered if I would have to throw it all away. I stared at nothing without relaxing. Tense and nearly catatonic.
My husband and my mother kept trying to explain to me that it was just a mouse, that it can’t hurt me, that (yes) it would be caught soon, and (no) it wouldn’t come back forever and ever and (no) there aren’t thousands of them waiting to swarm me.
I slowly came to realize that because I was no longer in control of my home environment – the one space I had finally made my own and made sacred – I was also no longer in control of my emotions and mental state. I couldn’t even will myself to relax if I tried. Which I didn’t, because: anxiety.
And this was after months and months of success. Of taking care of myself in ways that I consider self-care. Of dealing with my emotions calmly and dealing with outbursts via appropriate communication channels, or even just apologizing. I became worried that I was back at square one again, like I had just gotten sick and would have to take the long road to recovery once more.
But now the mouse is gone (like actually gone) and I feel a bit better. I can still feel the physical residue of my emotional breakdown in my fatigue and swollen lymphnodes (being stressed to the max kills your immune system), but that will subside and I can come back to myself again.
My point here isn’t to talk about a mouse in my house which I have now expunged forever (hopefully). It is to point out that when you have a mental illness like PTSD, the smallest, most unexpected things can set you off. One minute you are a productive businesswoman, grad student, activist and mother, and the next moment you’re asking your husband if he can stand outside the open washroom door while you pee with your feet up on the toilet seat. While sobbing.
The important thing to realize if you are the loved one of someone who can be unpredictably triggered is that you have to get better at recognizing a trigger for what it is so you can start being supportive immediately.
Signs of being triggered:
- The person tells you they are having a panic attack or having feelings of terror that are disproportionate to their circumstances
- The person is overwhelmed with worry and consumed with fear
- The person states that they feel like they are “going crazy”
- They can’t sleep
- They report any of the following signs:
- Cold or sweaty hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Not being able to be still or calm
- Muscle tension
- And others
The only thing worse than an anxiety attack is trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand that it is happening or, worse, doesn’t believe you. My family figured that out pretty fast and as a result, this mouse-y incident is something I can now laugh at.
Wishing the same for you,
Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.