Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of eating disorders and self-harm.
A trigger, in its broadest sense, refers to a precipitating factor of an event. A true trigger for a mental health challenge (not the societal overuse of the term) is at the least jarring, activating uncomfortable thoughts or behaviours but can often be miserable and even go as far as to prompt relapse, self-harm, or physical sickness.
Triggers played an enormous role in my own journey with recovery from eating disorders. One of the most challenging aspects of eating disorders is how many triggers they elicit due to their competitive nature. When I was first sent to treatment at 16, I was triggered, in an extreme way, for the first time. This flipped my world upside down. My sense of security, my identity, my reason for being deserving of help was gone. I couldn’t sink any lower. I was worthless. I was nothing.
My treatment journey wasn’t linear and I did go back a couple of times, but 6 years after that first admission, I’m mostly doing okay with eating disorder thoughts and behaviours. Not in complete recovery, but close. I rarely experience detrimental triggers which is a huge contributor to my doing well. It’s not that triggers aren’t there or don’t ever bother me. Triggers are always going to be there. But now, instead of reacting to the trigger and seeing this thing in the environment as an insufficiency within myself, I ask why. Why is this stimulus bothering me? What is this telling me? Why did this thing strike a nerve?
Triggers are clues to what’s going on internally. I’d be lying if I said certain things didn’t bother me. But instead of spiralling when I feel that initial bother, I ask myself why. Why do I feel that initial startle, that initial fear and inadequacy?
Logically, I know none of what my brain tells me when I’m triggered is true. None of those beliefs align with my values. But, why do I still feel vulnerable seeing this stimulus? Maybe I am feeling discontent in another area of my life, maybe I’m beginning to slip back into old cognitive patterns, maybe my body image isn’t where it should be.
Under this trigger hides a truth, some clue as to why a disproportionate emotional reaction was elicited. Instead of seeing this trigger as a stimulus to ruin my day, I see it as a flag. There’s something not quite right and I owe it to myself to figure out what it is so I can take care of my wellbeing going forward.
So, ask why. Why am I feeling so activated by this external thing? Why is this bothering me all the way to my core? It takes time and practice to use triggers as tools and flags for understanding yourself. In early recovery from anything, examining them might not be feasible. While triggers can lead us to internal truths we might otherwise miss, they still elicit incredible discomfort. Take care of yourself before using a trigger as a way to understand yourself; safety always takes priority over introspection. But eventually, leaning into this uncomfortable feeling just a bit could help you get past it.
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