Published on June 30th, 2013 | by Kristen Kansiewicz and Amy Jane Helmericks
How to Cope with Retriggering Your Breakdown
In this wrap-up of the first issue of Wyn, I wanted to share a little about our process of putting these initial stories together.
Becky and I were sure of a couple of things when we started this issue: one was the need for all the stories to be real and the other was to have the author’s name on every story.
The internet is full of places where anonymous stories are encouraged, and often they serve a real need for people to feel both safe and heard, but here at Wyn we wanted to put a face and name with the words we share.
We were emphatic about our desire to give you, our readers, the “gift of going second” by telling our stories first, even without a clean and tidy wrap-up.
Every one of us was blindsided by the emotional whiplash in our reflective return to “that place.”
Kristen guided us through what we were experiencing: retriggering our breakdown. In this article, she shares the clinical perspective on that phenomenon while I share from the authors’ experiences.
The retriggering initially felt scary, but it ended up becoming a healthy part of the recovery process for us. I hope this article will give you hope for your experiences of retriggering as well.
My and Kristen’s names are on this article, and the names of the people I’m about to quote have put their names on other stories in this issue—but I’ll spare their names here since these comments were all shared in the muddle of pooled emotion that began in January when Becky called for the stories of times we fell apart.
If you are one of the millions of women who have experienced an emotional breakdown at some point in your life, you may find that from time to time you re-experience that low point.
Often in the process of healing and recovery, you work through stressors and emotions and eventually feel whole again. There is a relief and gratitude and maybe even the assumption That’s finally over, now I can get on with my life.
Months or perhaps years later, you may find yourself talking with a friend or writing about your experience of breakdown and that moment of reflection causes all those feeling to return as if the problem never ended.
Oh, my sweet puppy, that is what happened for us.
Me-to-Group: Is it “normal”—or maybe something you “get over”—for reading about depression to feel like it’s triggering depressive (or anxious) feelings? I was trying to research my article today, all sorts of fascinating stuff going through my head, but I hit a wall that left me all tense and wondering if I can retrigger my depression the way an assault victim feels triggered by reading about assault.
Writer Q: I think so. I’ve been doing the same (sort of) and just going back to those times . . . makes me feel strung out and edgy. And tired. Really, really tired.
Writer P: Digging back into my breakdown to try to write about it has brought tears.
Why do we re-experience these feelings that we have already dealt with? Does a reoccurrence of these feelings mean we have not completely resolved them?
If you have gone through a sincere recovery process such as counseling, you have probably done the work needed to resolve the root issues that caused the breakdown in the first place.
Evidence of this is that you gained new insights about yourself and learned new methods for handling your feelings. You are probably living life now with a different set of skills and tools that you did not yet have when you experienced breakdown. In short, you are not the same person you were when you hit your lowest point.
Writer P: I dug up old emails and chat conversations from my “falling apart.” It was tough going through them. I know there is good stuff there, but it’s scary to think about. The good part was looking back and seeing how far I’ve come toward healing.
Even with your recovery work, it is possible to re-experience feelings that you already have truly resolved. Scientifically speaking, your brain creates neuron pathways when you experience feelings or learn new things. Each experience you have creates a new pathway (which is how counseling works) or follows a pathway you already have, making that path deeper and stronger.
Experiences that we have at a very early age, or that we repeat over and over, dig deeper grooves and give us stronger feelings. As a result we are more likely to connect with those experiences, good or bad. This is much like a well-travelled dirt path; the more often the path is used, the more permanent it becomes.
During your recovery process, your brain was forming new pathways, developed as you processed your feelings and learned to think differently. But that process did not remove the old pathways—they are still there, and we can travel on them again. We even do it naturally, by familiarity.
Writer Q: Yeah, so, um . . . this is a lot more emotionally draining than I thought it was going to be. I’m also getting frustrated because trying to tell my side of the story without sounding like a whiny, selfish cow is really difficult.
Writer P: Yeeee-up. I am experiencing the same thing . . . the emotionally draining parts of trying to write about it.
Writer H: Okay, confession. I started to write something about my personal story, did like 15 rewrites, wanted to just sleep the whole day, got into an argument with the hubs and was deemed “moody” and then have been avoiding that [breakdown-story assignment] like the plague. Harumph. It’s easier to do objective ones, more like reporting, but I can feel gold inside my memories—it’s just articulating them that is killing me. I’m praying. I think it’s a God-I-need-you thing for me.
When you go through a time of re-processing your breakdown, it is very much travelling down a dark and scary road that you have not been on for some time.
Most people have certain sights, sounds, or smells that immediately take them back to a place of great importance. An external cue sends you back down a memory path that makes you feel like you are back in that place.
When these cues (or triggers) remind you of a time when you were falling apart, your brain goes down that pathway and the feelings come flooding back.
This experience is completely normal and can be managed.
1. The first step is to notice your triggers. Are there certain places, sounds, smells, or people who strongly bring back those memories and feelings? Are there certain internal thoughts or habits you have that might be triggers as well?
External cues could be a song on the radio, or the smell of flowers in the spring, even the tone of someone’s voice or a look from someone you don’t even know.
An internal trigger could be an unexamined habit or a thought process that sends you down the wrong road. For example, I can approach information as though it’s the panacea (universal, infallible fix), and any failure for it to deliver comprehensive results is further proof of my brokenness. This was a hamster-wheel of thought I had to remove myself from to get healthy, but it’s still there, waiting for me to get back on.
2. After you have observed yourself and made a list of your triggers, a good next step is to learn to focus on the present.
Even if you can’t avoid all your triggers, you are a different person now: you have grown and changed.
Here’s some self-talk you can use to help you focus on the present: “I am in a safer place now. I am using skills daily to manage my feelings well.”
Make a list of the things that make you who you are today. What is different about you now?
In a moment of intense retriggering that causes more severe anxiety, make an effort to notice your present surroundings and even describe them out loud: “I am in a room, there are four walls, there is a plant in the corner, I am safe in this place.”
On a daily basis, practice living in the moment. The more practiced you are with being rooted in the here-and-now, the more easily you will be able to cope with triggered feelings.
This technique is effective because triggers work by pushing us into “well-worn grooves of thought,” that were created at a different time, when we were different people. By reminding ourselves about now and how it is separate from that environment that formed our former way of thinking, we have better leverage to climb out of the old rut and return to the present.
Sometimes we don’t feel that different, though. In those early days when we’re still blazing new trails or still in spitting distance of that old way of thinking, it can feel unnatural to walk this new path. It could even feel like lying to yourself, at first.
If you’ve lived your whole life seeing the label WORTHLESS across your forehead every time you look in the mirror, you might think it’s a sick joke to write PRICELESS across your palm, and retrace those letters every time they start to fade.
Do it anyway.
Create positive triggers—a word on your palm, a favorite song from your past (or present), a piece of jewelry that you can touch when the near-past comes nearer-still. A trustworthy counselor and positive friends who cheer you on, even the remembered love of a dear friend or family member who has died or moved far away—these are reminders you’re not alone, and that you are not manufacturing a fantasy-world to hide in, away from reality.
Like Kristen said, you are creating new paths, but they are to the safe places you want to be. Focus on the next step, and then the next step after that. The journey may seem too long, and the memories may paw you back to a dark place, but you don’t have to walk alone or in the dark.
The dawn always comes, and we at Wyn will do our best to hold your hand while you find your real-life network to support you through recovery and celebrate with you the reminder that even the triggers can remind us of what we’re leaving behind.
For more information on depression and the pathways in your brain, check out these articles:
Image by Peter Huys via Stock.Xchng.