Mental Health – The Triggers
“Better the devil you know”
– Common Idiom
When it comes to mental health I believe that the above quote is a very appropriate one. Last week I spoke openly of depression, while this post applies to depression it also applies to other mental states as well so I’m hoping it will be useful to lots of people.
One of the biggest issues that I used to find was that the internal attacks on my mind from negative thoughts, whether they were attacks of anxiety, panic, depression or anger, seemed to be random. They were out of my control and I could never predict them. It was as though the most seemingly anything, whether it was a cataclysmic life changing event or stubbing my toe in the morning could shatter any fragile state of rare calm and peace I may have been feeling that day.
This opinion and state of mind persisted for a long time, as did my frail mental state. I was halfway through my second year at university when, I think it was my counselor Helen (to whom I owe an enormous debt to. I don’t know if I would’ve survived university if I had not used those weekly one hour session to let my guard down and talk about the things that were troubling me) where she mentioned sleep therapy and mindfulness meditation sessions at the Southampton City Library. Mindfulness is something I will talk about thoroughly in later posts, but it was during these session that I learned my entire outlook on mental health, the control of my mental state and my subsequent mood were entirely within my control.
Unconscious Thought Patterns
In the days prior to my brain injury, I would have considered myself a very happy, outgoing and positive person. I think that I had a good outlook on life and I knew roughly where I was going and what I wanted to do. Now, the brain is an enormously complex machine. It sends messages all around the body to keep it functioning. It tells us what to do. To use a geeky metaphor it is the motherboard to our computer. It sends out the various signals without us being aware that it is doing so. For example, a person decides to go for a walk. When they leave their front door and have selected their destination and the brain issues the command “begin to walk”, the brain unconsciously does the work. It is not a series of conscious instructions where our inner monologue is saying, “right foot forward, now left foot forward, now right foot again…” and so on. The reason for that is that walking is such an essential everyday function it has become programmed and so engrained that it is almost an automated function, programmed deeply into our brains. We do it without thinking about it, we aren’t aware of the thought process and it does not leave a trail. Many of our physical attributes and skills operate in this way, as an automatic pre-programmed function. That is when we are talking about physical functions and physical actions, our mental functioning and the processes that dictate it is a very different story.
Inner Monologue and Memories – Conscious Thought Patterns
When it comes to emotional and mental health, states of depression and low mood do not just happen. For us to end up in a state where we feel that low or that anxious, the thoughts that travel around our brains have to follow a certain path to arrive at the self destructive destination that is panic or depression or any other state of mind that drives us to distraction. Often, the vehicle that pushes us towards those undesirable locations of angst, irritability and negative thought are conscious thoughts, in other words, thoughts we are aware of. Often they are thoughts or memories we have rummaged through the archives to find. Ones we have chosen to analyse, reflect and look back on.
Certain thoughts evoke certain emotional responses. Positive thoughts instigate a positive emotional response while negative thoughts produce a negative emotional response. If we take that to be true then people who suffer from mental health problems and feel as though they cannot control their thought patterns and the subsequent emotional responses, with the right discipline, patience and hard work, in fact CAN learn to master and control them. It is a case of learning what the TRIGGERS for said thought patterns are. Unlike unconscious thought patterns, conscious thought patterns DO leave a trail. If we can follow the trail, analyse and monitor our thoughts carefully, then we can identify if there are any particular thoughts or memories that act as a trigger for a negative emotional response, giving us back more control.
Finding & Identifying The Triggers
Think of our thoughts as the first time you take a long journey in a car. It is a journey which you will have to make many times in the future. Inevitably, it will take a while to learn the correct way to the desired destination. There are many alternative routes, many turns that come off the main road and in some cases, dead ends that don’t really go anywhere and worst of all, roundabouts. Roundabouts where we keep going round in circles trying to find the right road that gets us out of the never ending cycle of going round and round and round. In our minds, we can often take a wrong turn that leads us down a wicked road. We can try to get back on course on our own and we try a few different turnings to get us back on course, but finding our way back is extremely difficult. However, if we take time to study and analyse our thoughts, we become aware of the side roads, the junctions and where the roundabouts are that can send us in the wrong direction. Mastering this type of discipline will act as your road map.
As I said in the introduction to this post, this discipline is a key component of a meditation known as Mindfulness. A particular part of Mindfulness focuses on learning about our minds, the way they work and the thoughts we have. Then we can analyse certain trains of thought and where they lead. It is about identifying the particular thoughts that send us in the wrong direction where we end up lost and in a terrible place with no idea where we are or how we got there. By identifying the particular turn offs (I.E. certain memories, how we view ourselves, certain things we think about life and the world in general, things beyond our control etc.) and where that turn leads, we can avoid taking that particular turn off in the future, as we know that it leads us to a bad place. Those memories and thoughts are triggers for depression, anxiety, panic or anger. Once we know what the triggers are, when you come across them, is about mastering the ability to knowingly turn your thoughts around and send them in another direction. As that becomes easier and you master that discipline it is then a case of turning that conscious effort into unconscious thought, of doing it without thinking.
Where Does The Quote Come In?
In fact, the full Idiom I quoted at the top is as follows:
“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
The point I making here by referencing this very wise and very intelligent saying is to reinforce the entire message this post has been sending (or, at least trying to send). That once we have identified certain weaknesses or problems we are much better equipped to develop strategies that allow us to accept them and manage our lives around them. By being aware of the weaknesses and problems we have and developing strategies that allow us to cope with them, we can the live a fuller live without mental (or physical because the idiom does apply to both) health being a serious impediment or a shadow that we have to live our lives under forever more. Once we identify the devils inside us we can figure out ways that work for us on how best not to engage with them.