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Recognizing the triggers that can make daily life difficult

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Dear Therapist,

Please tell me about depression triggers. What can be done about them for both the person who experiences them and the family of an affected person?

Depression triggers vary depending on the person. They are inconveniently laced into the patterns and eventualities of daily life, and some triggers can intensify with memories and gatherings associated with the holiday season.

Here are a few examples clients have shared with me:

“My family. They’re so angry all the time that I can’t help but feel awful.”

“I get depressed every year around this time because this is when my spouse died.”

“Whenever I come to the clinic and see a parent with their baby, I get sad because my baby isn’t here anymore.”

“I feel like a terrible parent because no matter what I do, my kid still won’t listen to me and gets in trouble.”

Most often, we have little control over these triggers. So, what can be done?

Know your triggers and what you control

First and foremost, you have to know what sets you off so you can avoid those situations or find ways to handle them as they come up. You can’t fight something if you don’t know what it is.

We can’t control other people or random events. However, what you can work on is your own reaction to a trigger. If you have been able to identify a trigger and you can’t avoid it, use coping techniques to manage your moods.

As spiritual leader Pema Chodron says, “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.”

Ways to soften the blow

If you know an event is coming up that will trigger you, cope in advance by coming up with a plan for yourself. What small, realistic ways can you improve your experience of the trigger? Setting a specific time to depart a gathering - and sticking to it - is one example.

Mindfulness

Being aware of your own experience is the best way to fight the effect triggers have on you. Think of your mind like a thermometer. What does “40 degrees” feel like for you versus “90 degrees?” When you ask yourself these questions, try to think of thoughts, behaviors, feelings, bodily sensations and moods you have at each stage. The differences between each stage may be very subtle, but knowing these subtleties can help you employ disaster prevention to avoid a major depressive episode or even self-harm.

Choose opposite actions

Depression is a bully. Depressive thoughts that enter your head when triggered might tell you things like, “Stay in bed all day” or “Let’s go drink because this is really hard.” If you were confronted with a real bully, would you do everything they say? Of course not!

If your depressive thoughts tell you “stay in bed all day,” do the opposite. Make yourself get up, even if it’s hard, because acting on your depressive thoughts only makes the depression stronger and last longer.

Challenge cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are negative thinking patterns that can keep you depressed. For example, if you are the parent in the example above whose child is always acting out despite your best efforts, thinking you are a bad parent is a cognitive distortion. It’s not true, it’s just how you feel.

You can challenge this thought by remembering the actual evidence that you are a good parent, i.e. “I care very deeply about my child’s well-being. Parenting is hard, and I am doing the best I know how.”

Seek help

Depression affects about 6.8 percent of adults in a given year. A major depressive disorder lasts for at least two weeks and affects a person’s ability to work, carry on usual activities and have satisfying personal relationships. Sometimes we can’t address it alone. Talk to a friend, family member or seek professional help in a therapist.

Lauren Cloud, MS, MFTC is a bilingual outpatient therapist at Community Reach Center.

Submit a question to Ask A Therapist at AskATherapist@CommunityReachCenter.org via email.

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