During every moment of every day, everyone’s experiences in the outside world trigger an inward, mental response to that event in that person’s head. Seeing a penguin could cause someone to feel happy for example, or seeing someone kicking a penguin could cause someone to feel a rage more powerful than can be possibly imagined. Either way, what happens on the outside will flip some kind of switch on the inside, and, if a person has a mental illness, that switch may be the one that controls their disorder/sets it off on a rampage. Daily life with a mental health problem is a struggle in general, but pretty much everyone will have things that trigger their disorders more than usual, and for this reason people will avoid thinking about these things.
In terms of OCD I know there are certain words or smells that make me particularly likely to engage in compulsive behaviours, and I know that hearing people talk about weight loss, exercise or calories pushes the buttons of my eating disorder. Consequently, I do my best to stick my head in the sand when it comes to things like that and I avoid thinking about those topics as much as possible. On the surface it seems like a good idea, surely if I avoid thinking about things that make my disorder worse, I will avoid the distress they cause and I won’t have to deal with it. However this head in the sand method tends to fall to pieces if I ever find myself in a situation where I cannot avoid my triggers, because by never thinking about them, I have not prepared a way to manage my response. It is all well and good to turn off TV programs about topics in which my OCD trigger words are likely to arise, or avoid people following the latest diet trend and pretend that they are not a problem for me, but say for instance I was ever kidnapped by my local troop of Weight Watchers (not that I am suggesting that people who belong to the aforementioned diet club are at high risk of kidnapping people), I would be screwed.
For this reason I would say that thinking about your triggers and planning ways to cope when confronted with them is actually vital in terms of living with a mental disorder, and if for some reason you do not believe me when I say this (which I would understand; it is after all asking a lot for you to trust the words of a stranger on the internet without explanation), then allow me to illustrate my point with a story about my good friend Bert…
Bert is a very famous athlete, his sport being the javelin throw. He is 28 years old and has been training since the age of five after he found his first ever Javelin waiting for him in a stocking one Christmas morning (this was back in the day when Santa was not very good at picking out gifts for the under tens and Health and Safety were less on the ball than they are nowadays). Due to many years of training and a natural talent for throwing long pointy objects, Bert excelled at his sport and was thus invited to attend the Olympics in Rio this year. Bert was thrilled. He immediately packed his bags, stepped on a plane and set off to Rio (I don’t know how exactly he got through airport security with a massive javelin when most people aren’t allowed more than 100ml of shampoo but just go with it).
Upon arrival, he went to the stadium in which his sport was to be held, but prior to reaching the changing rooms, a strange man in a top hat came up to him with news that shocked Bert to his very core. For some unknown and mysterious reason it was confirmed that Bert was indeed to compete in the Olympics…BUT NOT IN THE JAVELIN. No, because of some kind of spelling mistake on behalf of an overworked secretary, Bert had been entered into the dressage, an understandable error as we all know how often one will accidentally find oneself writing “dressage” when meaning Javelin. Whoever wrote the dictionary really should have made those words less similar to save us all the stress we face in daily life… ANYWAY. Bert cried out and pleaded with the top hatted man for the error to be changed but there was no way, and thus it happened that Bert found himself as a competitor in the dressage event Rio 2016 despite having no knowledge of dressage whatsoever. With two hours to go before the competition started, Bert rushed off in a panic to try and find someone with any knowledge of dressage, but alas though he looked in every nook (he forgot to check the crannies), he found nothing, and had to turn up to the event as clueless as the moment he had stepped off the plane. Only when it was his turn to perform did he realise the problem even bigger than having no knowledge of dressage. He had no horse. Therefore poor Bert had to compete without a noble steed, resorting to galloping and prancing around the paddock tossing his imaginary mane all alone. It was a catastrophe.
Now, let’s just imagine that story again, but with one very important detail changed. In this second version, instead of finding out about the unfortunate spelling error in the stadium, he found out in a phone call from the man with the top hat before he packed to get on the plane. This way the situation awaiting Bert was to be exactly as it was the first time, but in this version Bert had time to prepare. By knowing about the mix up beforehand, he was able to run to the fields prior to his flight and purchase a horse from an old farmer called Frank, to accompany him on his journey (again I have no idea how he got a horse through airport security but to be honest if the unrealistic portrayal of airport security is the only thing you are finding hard to believe in this story then I feel I am doing rather well.) When it came to the dressage event Bert still had little knowledge of dressage, but having read a pamphlet on the plane and with his horse, he was able to compete considerably better than he had in the alternate universe where he had been forced to gallop around the paddock himself. Did Bert still come last in the event? Yes. Did he score the lowest mark in the history of dressage at the Olympics? Of course he did, but by anticipating the sudden event change before getting on the plane, Bert was able to prepare the best he could for the inevitable difficulty in his future and thus able to manage the situation far better.
Now, if we read this story and interpret participating in a sudden dressage competition as being forced to suddenly face one of your triggers without ever having thought about how to deal with it first, I think we can all agree that it was better for Bert to be aware of the upcoming problem so that he could prepare, and therefore better for people to anticipate and think about ways to manage their triggers before they are sprung upon them unexpectedly.
Did Bert having a horse stop all of the distress and anxiety when performing? No, but he was at least better prepared than in the first story and was able to do all he could to make the best of that situation/gather a horse together.
Knowing your triggers will not cure you of your illness, but there are times in which it can help manage the surprise bouts of anxiety when these triggers come up in situations you hadn’t expected them to (say for example a sudden kidnapping from a band of rogue members of your local Weight Watchers).
Obviously by simply being aware of what situations or things trigger you, you are not going to change the affect those triggers may have or lessen any distress they may cause. Even when you are aware of what makes life difficult those difficulties will still affect you, but when you are aware of what sets your disorder off, you are at least able to anticipate ways of dealing with it.
Thinking about triggers is always going to be hard, yet I can assure each and every one of you out there that doing so is a lot easier than encountering them unawares, just as it is much easier to perform in Olympic dressage when you have a horse…
Take care everyone