"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
January 3, 2014
Know Your Triggers
by Sarah Hancock

Blond, fuzzy hair fell around her shoulders. She seemed nice enough. She was tall and her crisp suit created a professional atmosphere in her newly attained office, bare of things other counselors had hanging on walls. She smiled.

I shifted uneasily in my chair. I abhor breaking the ice with a new counselor. I’d told and retold my story to so many clinicians that doing it again just seems pointless. Yet there I sat, desperately needing help, hopeful that maybe she would know how to help me.

“Do you know what your triggers are?”

Interrupted, I stopped making a mental note of books on the shelf behind her. Huh? Does she think I’m a gun? “Excuse me?”

“Your triggers. What are they?” Steady and calm, her voice hung in the air.

I sat confused. I came in for help and clearly they’d assigned me to someone as delusional as I was. Obviously I wasn’t an arsenal of weaponry as her questions insinuated. I shook my head. “I have no triggers.”

“Everyone has triggers.”

“Um.” I paused, taking a slow deep breath, letting it out through my nose. “No, they don’t.” Clearly she needed more help than I did.

“Maybe you don’t understand what I’m asking.”

I sat annoyed, bouncing my foot and fidgeting with my CTR ring. I hate getting a new counselor. Why did they assign me to you? Couldn’t they see you’re sicker than I am? Seriously.

“Triggers, things that set you off, causing symptoms to get worse if gone unchecked.”

My foot rested on the floor. Looking up at her, I put my ring on and sat up to listen. “Triggers?” My forehead creased in thought. I have a lot of triggers.

“Yeah.” She smiled. “Triggers.”

When I was a kid, my dad taught me the same concept. He called “triggers” my “buttons.” I don’t remember exactly when or how it came up, but dad taught me that I had personal buttons that needed to be protected so that others couldn’t push them.

My younger brother was particularly adept at pushing my buttons. He knew exactly what to do to infuriate me. As an adolescent, I just knew that my brother found joy in pushing my buttons.

One way to illustrate this is a family road trip. The car was small, with three children in the back. The air conditioner was out. The family was driving toward the Grand Canyon without the luxuries of today’s conveniences. No DVD player. No satellite radio. All we had was a single tape of “Elton John’s Greatest Hits,” played and replayed since San Diego.

My parents, weary from a less-than-perfect night’s sleep after a long day of travel, heard me, eleven years-old, complaining, “He’s sitting on my side of the seat. He’s touching me!”

Dad’s response: “So move.”

I moved over. With a grin, my nine year-old brother moved farther over too. “Dad!” I whined. “Make him stop!” I glared at my brother. He was sitting in the middle seat, my favorite seat. I narrowed my eyes to little slits and scowled.

“Dad,” he whined. “Sarah’s staring at me.”

Recognizing with glee that he hated what I was doing, I bored holes into him with a mischievous smile. Elton John crooned in the background. The windows were down, circulating hot, dry air. Each family member was soaked in sweat.

Suddenly my seven-year-old brother cried out, “Mom! They’re breathing my air.”

“Enough!” Mom stopped the Elton John tape. A tense silence filled the car.

“You’re all old enough,” my dad said from the front seat, staring at the dusty road before us. “Stop letting each another push your buttons.”

Dad taught me a good lesson, although it took a long time to influence how I behaved. I could either let people push my buttons, or hide my buttons. From that point on, we complained about someone pushing our buttons, to which my dad would simply say, “Stop showing him your buttons.”

Triggers work much the same way. If people can recognize their own triggers, they can work to cover them, in essence preventing others from triggering something worse.

If you look at that example, it’s pretty easy to identify the family members’ buttons. Not having enough space in a cramped car, being stared at, having someone breathe air. It sounds pretty silly, really. Now look at some less obvious triggers. It’s hot. There’s no AC. No one slept well. There’s only one music source for the entire trip.

My parents wanted to provide us with a memorable summer vacation. We kids, clueless to the amount of planning and preparation that went into getting to and from the Grand Canyon from San Diego, weren’t making the trip very pleasant.

Now look at meeting with my counselor. Just meeting with her triggered me because I hated getting to know a new counselor, retelling my story. Originally I perceived her as rather incompetent, but felt helpless because my insurance assigned her to me.

You get the idea.

Some of common triggers for people with mental illness can include lack of sleep, improper diet, too much sugar, caffeine, excessive external stimuli (noise, lights, and others), stress, poor health, family concerns, lifelike vivid dreams caused by medications, abrupt changes in plans or schedule.

Having mental illness is a unique challenge. I think of it as a mental Olympics. There is a lot of training involved in taking back one’s life. Things that can seem benign to one person may be the tipping point for someone else.

Not recognizing triggers creates feelings of helplessness. The first step in breaking down helplessness is recognizing one’s triggers. In doing so, a person can take control of symptoms before they grow worse. Writing down one’s triggers in a WRAP and then creating a plan to minimize them strengthens empowerment. Empowerment builds hope.

This is the fifth in a series about Mary Ellen Copeland’s Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). In this series, I thoroughly explain the concept of WRAP, explain how to find help in creating your own, or helping a friend or family member do the same in an effort to move forward with on their psychiatric recovery. For more information about Mary Ellen Copeland’s WRAP, please visit her website at www.copelandcenter.com.

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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isnít just possible ó itís probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying ó not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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