Why Feeling ‘Triggered’ Can Be a Helpful Internal Compass

Trigger Drawing

Like a threatening blow to the head, a gush of emotional pain overwhelms us. When we get a sight or a sound of something that reminds us of a familiar mental discomfort.

In my years of treatment for my Eating Disorder, I have heard this word thrown around a lot. Triggered. Whether that be during group therapy sessions and patients would feed back about their time at home, how a family member said or did something that was triggering – as in, a sudden, sharp burst of emotion or uncomfortable memory swept them up and made them feel vulnerable. Or when a new patient is admitted to the ward, when you are further in recovery – the sight of them at a low weight, where you were months ago, is a sinking, tummy-twisting feeling. They look to be in that bubble you know so well, that you’re trying so desperately to act against. The one that convinced you it was your friend, your only trusting companion.

And during this triggered moment, your Eating Disorder thoughts try to seduce you back in.

When you feel this way, it raises so many emotions. Frustration and confusion most of all – “why did I choose recovery?” “I can’t cope, and I’ve just proved to myself life is more painful without food and weight being my pre-occupation.” “Everyone has lied to me saying that life would be better without Anorexia, and now I can’t go back – I’ve put on too much weight and now I’m trapped in a body that won’t let me numb my emotions away.”

It can feel crap for anyone when your head really, really feels it needs to do something, but it can’t. Like if you were trapped in a cage, thirsty, and you were reaching though the metal bars for a bottle of water dangling in front of you, that your fingers won’t quite reach. It can feel like this when you’re in recovery, placing hope in the unknown. That letting go of something that convinced it kept you safe, but you’re constantly having to fight off.

Anything that raises your emotions, and reminds you of the relationship you thought you could trust more than any real person in the world – can act as a ‘trigger’. Even just seeing certain types of food. I remember finding it really difficult during my last inpatient stay, when I eventually got granted leave off the ward, the only place to really go in the vicinity, was Asda.

I used to always go to Asda, when literally, every waking minute was like a huge magnetic pull towards thoughts around food – my brain starved, but feeling constantly panicked at not having enough of the ‘right things’/my ‘safe’ things in the house, always fearing loss of control. It was my abusive partner keeping me engrossed. I couldn’t get my mind off numbers, and I was always thinking 65 steps ahead with my meal-planning. My starved brain of course kept swaying towards thoughts around food, because I wasn’t feeding it enough.

So there’s certain types of food, and brands in the shops that were on the ‘must’ list when Anorexia was in control. Then, walking into the big wide world after weeks in an Eating Disorder Unit, having had to go against all of the rules that I thought were protecting me, and after having put on a bit of weight to get to a stable point, coming face-to-face to these things was a shock to the system.

I remember walking through the aisles trying to blank out certain areas, and with fear of them coming into my view, look away. I felt like a recovering alcoholic trying to walk through a narrow alleyway, the walls made up of bottles of beers and spirits.

Eventually, I knew that avoiding them and blocking them out of my view, was only making the problem feel more demon-like in my head, so accepting what they looked like when I saw them was the only way to get through to the other side. This is where my internal compass powered up. I realised that avoiding these things, would get me no-where. And that’s something I’ve learnt more and more through recovery. Being avoidant of those things that makes us uncomfortable, just gives power to those things. It makes us feel weak, small incapable. When we could be missing out on something great – an opportunity to feel different to the negative way we predict that we will.

Avoiding anything that raises emotions, can, in the long-term have an impact on our well-being, and can also affect our character, and how we come across to others. This has been a huge learning point for me, through all aspects of my mental health recovery. I want to be as honest and compassionate as I can be as a person through my life, so if avoiding those painful spots affects that, then I will strive to do something about it. The only way to replace that demon-like sensation in your head, is to face it, so that you can replace that feeling with the realisation that you are stronger than whatever it is.  You can do it. You can experience it without feeling like the victim. You’ll then make way for a bit more mental peace, and feel more at ease as a person – and we all want that, right?

It’s strange how just one sight, thought, feeling can take us back to an emotionally dark place. But re-framing how we now feel about something, can eventually outweigh the negatives. Like seeing ‘fat-free’ yoghurt for instance – standing in a yoghurt aisle and being bombarded with so many options of yoghurt, I used to feel compelled to go for this option. I felt like I was being made to feel ‘bad’ if I went against the option that was being advertised as ‘angelic’, ‘innocent’. When I was in a better place with my recovery I was able to remind myself of all of the reasons that actually the proper stuff, proper yoghurt without the fat taken out was perfectly angelic and innocent to the life I want to lead. I remembered: the diet industry is a big money-maker, and for some people that’s all it comes down to – they don’t take emotions of customers into account apart from to guilt-trip people into buying certain products, fat is GOOD – yoghurt with fat won’t make me ‘fat’ – I have the choice of how much I eat, and of what (that’s what healthy eating and a healthy body comes down to for anyone)… ‘fat-free’ means there’s probably additives and sweetener in which ends up usually making you crave more food – when you could have had the one proper yoghurt, without the manipulation, and felt satisfied in the first place. More importantly, yoghurt with fat TASTES a hell of a lot nicer. And lastly, there was far, far less a number of overweight people back in the olden days – and all they ate was the proper stuff before the option overload in the supermarket. Proper yoghurt, proper cheese, proper milk. It’s how and when we choose to include them in our lives that makes all of the difference. We are in control.

When  I came away from this, I realised that feeling triggered caused me to look into myself to discover another way of viewing things. I felt empowered. I realised that I had the key inside me to feel free from these kinds of situations.

Seeing sufferers of Anorexia, appear on my newsfeed on Instagram, at a low weight, or disordered food-related posts, is something I’m still muddling through. That’s a tough trigger, but it has got easier. I’m still in the process of grieving my Anorexia, and sometimes you could argue that limiting this exposure for yourself is a very good thing. In some senses, choosing to ‘unfollow’ certain accounts isn’t necessarily avoidance of the trigger, it’s just re-evaluating what is helpful in your life. For me, choosing to do that with anyone that I felt was dampening my motivated recovery mindset has been a life-saver.

So when I was in my last inpatient Unit, which was out of area, I came across a very challenging situation that caused me to reflect on how we deal with ‘triggers’. We had a weekly group in which we could express, amongst patients any issues, or topics we want to openly talk about. This particular week, it was about me. You know when people are skirting around something without trying to make eye contact when it’s so obvious you are the person in question?

I’d started a very honest blog, a few weeks into my inpatient stay, to help me through what became a very difficult time in my recovery. I was struggling to comply with the meal-plan because of Anorexia’s rules, a constant barrier in my head. I’d been threatened my consultant that I would be put on an NG tube, after a couple of times of saying I could make the changes, but then failing at the power of Anorexia. But this time, I begged in tears, knowing full well that being fed liquid nutrition in a way that was out of my control, would ruin my relationship with food. So I begged for once last chance, that I would commit to the full portions of food on the meal-plan (I wasn’t managing half portions). Once I came out of that meeting, I was in utter shock, but I knew this was what I had to do. I had to do it, knowing how torturous these next few weeks would feel.

As soon as I walked out, a plate was shoved in front of me with two slices of toast and butter for morning snack. Having struggled to complete one slice the weeks up to now, I knew instantly this was jumping in the deep end. This was game on.

But how did I help myself cope… ? I began a raw and open blog (this one), every day from that very moment. Documenting my experience, through eating ‘full portions’ and talking about my daily reflections and battles, sharing my weight progress, this way of expressing myself became my rock. With my intentions to be to reach ‘full recovery’ (or as possible as can be), I decided to be every bit raw. My Eating  Disorder didn’t want me to face up to these truths, and be not expressing my emotions, I would be giving more power to Anorexia.

So I did. I gave descriptive examples of my thoughts and experiences, including my disordered thoughts around food. I gained much positive feedback, and some followers from the other side of the world. I wanted to try and talk about Anorexia in a down-to-earth manner, in a way that would connect us all to the realisation that we all have mental health. It began to make me feel a huge supportive comfort, knowing that people out there were wanting to learn more about Anorexia, as I helped break down taboos. I wanted to make people out there aware that being thin wasn’t down to vanity at all. There was many emotional things tied up with being able to feel bones and a lack of flesh and fat on your skin.

But during this particular inpatient group, it was raised that writing blogs to this ‘honest’ extent were unhelpful and triggering to some patients. (aimed towards me) There was a great unease when talking about it. I completely empathise with the fact that during mental health recovery, it is a very vulnerable time – yet this is where I began to learn, that what triggers us, we MUST own. We have to tune into our internal compass and figure out why it is something is hurting us so much? Why it’s touching so many nerves?

I remember being made to feel like a bad person because some found my blog ‘triggering’. This is where we have to own our choices. No-one makes you click on that link to a blog post. I know social media is laid on quite heavy nowadays, and it is a great influence in our lives, but if you take some time to empathise with the ‘triggering’ person’s intentions, it softens that blow to your head. If I had set out to be ‘pro-Anorexic’, perhaps I would have been out of line. But the fact that I was well and truly committed to reaching a positive state of recovery, I hadn’t set out to be anything but truthful in the ups and downs.

I took a lot of strength from this difficult group, that at the time I felt was aimed at me. I didn’t let it stop me writing my blog. It was my crutch… the filter to my jumble of emotions. Knowing people were reading was enough to make me feel like I had my invisible cheerleading squad. Sometimes people feel upset facing up to honesty, see thoughts shared out loud that may have been a struggle in their own heads. To me, that’s avoidance. It becomes very tempting to put the blame on others for the mental discomfort when something is brought to the surface that you’re trying to avoid.

When you feel triggered, it’s much more helpful to try and listen to what it is that’s hurting you so much. It can make you more self-aware, so that you can take responsibility for it. Maybe that bit of hurt can offer you the realisation that you don’t want to be in an inpatient Unit for much longer – they can intensify emotion when you’re surrounded with so many people struggling with the same battle. So this may be motivation for your long-term recovery. Also, the feeling of ‘weakness’ you get from being triggered, can be empowering if you turn it on it’s head and aim to strive to be at a point in your recovery when your Anorexia isn’t feeling so vulnerable. So that you can help others in a similar situation, instead of being threatened by someone who means no harm on your life.

Being triggered, is something spoken about a lot amongst those struggling from an Eating Disorder. If that’s you, don’t let yourself become a victim. It’s not always easy when we’re bombarded with social media, but by owning up to your triggers and not placing the blame of your emotional hurt on something else will help you shift your mind-set. You will own yourself a little bit more than your illness does.

You’ll learn more about yourself and once you’re able to realise that these things aren’t out to get you, you can feel empowered. Feeling triggered now, instead teaches me lessons that help me see things in a more positive light.  There’s often always a lesson to come of it.

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