The Mental Illness Trigger You May Not Have Heard Of
I’ve experienced this particular trigger twice in recent years, and I really haven’t heard others speak on it. So, as per my usual fashion, I feel the need to share it with ya’ll in hopes folks can relate. I also have plenty of theories on what might cause this trigger, and what can potentially be done about it. Which as you’ve guessed, I’ll indeed be sharing as well.
A few years ago, I had a minor ailment and went to the doctor. He gave me a five-day work note and some medication. After the allotted time, my body was feeling fine. A scenario that is commonplace enough, most people experience something like it on occasion without much ado.
While the first part was typical, what followed was not. Around two weeks after my physical complaint ended, my mental health was in shambles. My mood plummeted and I became severely anxious. It happened very quickly. It became so severe, at about that two-week mark I walked myself over to the hospital, and I was admitted briefly for psychiatric care.
In total honesty, in the beginning, I didn’t link the two events together. I certainly didn’t think the one may have caused the other. To be fair, there was other stuff going on. I was off work a week for being sick and things understandably had gotten behind which I found stressful. I was in the middle of doing some deep therapy work. And I had some other stuff going on. So, as I mentioned, when it was first suggested to me my physical ailment may have triggered this depressive episode, I wasn’t too sure what to think. I did eventually come to see though these other things were secondary.
Fast-forward to present day, and something happened again. In February, I fell down one stair (seriously body… thanks) and hurt my tailbone. I was given a two-week work note. As much as I didn’t like the literal pain in my backside, I pretty much relaxed and watched lots of TV. What I mean is, it could have been worse.
Then came the anxiety, nearly right at the two-week mark yet again. In what felt like a normal moment, I had a panic attack, and then I proceeded to have several over that week. Anxiety is exhausting at the best of times, throw in full-on panic attacks and it becomes hard to cope. Then, down goes the mood.
Almost everyone on my team got a call (or several calls…), and some had the pleasure talking me through panic attacks and tears. I was understandably facing additional anxiety I could end up needing inpatient support again. Everyone rallied around me as best they could, and while I’m not quite back to my usual self just yet, I’m improving. We’ll see if a med change is in order, or if temporary additional support will see me through. I feel really lucky to have great support, but I digress.
And so, here we are. Once is a maybe, twice is solid enough evidence for me to see the pattern. I’m still trying to understand the why to it, but I have some solid guesses. I also know some of what it’s not. I’ll shift now to sharing what this type of trigger could be about. Not just for me, but others as well, and some ideas on what can be done about it.
Mental illness symptoms may be triggered by physical ailments because of:
1. Medical post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I personally know this is not the case for me in these scenarios, even if I do have some avoidance issues with doctors. Yet, I think it’s super important to talk about this concept as plenty of individuals do experience this.
Some folks have had a traumatic medical experience. This can range from being traumatized by a serious illness or injury, abuses perpetrated by medical staff, a difficult trip to the ER and so forth. If a person develops PTSD after an experience like that, they may avoid medical care, or if they have no choice but to seek it, it can be a trigger.
There are ways to work on this, such as trauma therapy, exposure therapy, medications and having open conversations with your providers. It may also be helpful to seek out practitioners who are aware of trauma-informed care.
At the best of times when it comes to mental illness, it is important to keep on top of your medications. Personally, I have to keep an eye out for returning symptoms, which usually means my meds need a tweak. It’s also important to be aware of interactions, side effects, timing and so on. While I again don’t necessarily see a link in my recent situations, I’m willing to accept this could be playing a small part. Perhaps the temporary meds are having an effect on my regular psych ones. Maybe I’m not being as vigilant about taking my pills in their prescribed time frame.
Talk with your pharmacist if you aren’t sure about what effect adding in something new might have on your regular meds. I did ask in both the above scenarios, and was told there wouldn’t be any interference. As to my other point, consider downloading a medication reminder. I use one called Round. You can also keep it even simpler by adding an alarm to your watch or phone.
3. Emotional flashbacks.
This is one I’m leaning heavily toward as to my explanation of what’s going on in my case. This is a somewhat newer concept, so I’ll take a moment to share what it’s all about.
Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is an emerging diagnosis, not quite in the North American diagnostic manual just yet. As you may have guessed, it’s similar to PTSD, but is more “complex” due to the trauma having been long-standing. I experience C-PTSD symptoms, though depending on if I’m up for explaining it, I’ll just say I experience PTSD to make it easier for myself. It has the same basic PTSD symptoms with some add-ons and variations. Google can take you through that in more detail, Pete Walker is an especially helpful resource.
Emotional flashbacks are associated with C-PTSD. These types of flashbacks bring folks who experience them back not so much into the traumatic moment(s), but instead into the emotions they experienced in and around them. This can all feel very frightening and intense.
When this happens to me, I tend to find myself feeling like I’m in danger. I sometimes start to worry if I can trust people I previously thought I could. On top of that, I feel lost, alone, confused and like there is something fundamentally wrong with me. I have a sneaking suspicion when I have a more serious medical problem, it may lead to me feeling there’s been a loss of control, which certainly could lead to a flashback of the feelings I just mentioned.
Although I’ve been working on my stuff for over 15 years, this is a newer scenario of getting ill, then possibly having emotional flashbacks, so I’m still working out strategies to deal with it. One thing I know is it’s important to respect my feelings, to honor the part of me they come from and to recognize they come from a place that’s trying to protect me. On the flip side, it’s being able to honor those feelings while also remembering I am, “in the now.” I’m still working on that part. For me, it helps to talk about it with my team, to write, to lie under weighted blankets, to get hugs, to convince my friend’s pets to sit on me, to eat a questionable amount of cookies and to get a bit of exercise. There will probably be other things I discover to help with this as I journey onward.
4. Structure and routine.
Many folks, myself included, are helped by having structure and routine, this is especially so when you mix in mental illness. When you’re sick, that stuff regularly goes out the window, and usually for good reasons. You likely need to stay home, get more sleep and so on.
It may help if you’ve had an illness or injury to create some type of loose schedule. Doing things to, at the least, try and keep up your usual routine of sleep and meals. Have some human contact and so on. I tried really hard this time after my fall to do this. I was somewhat successful, but add in COVID-19 life, and it was a bit tricky.
5. Mind-body connection.
I think we’ve moved into a new era where we more readily accept our various bodily systems are more connected than we used to think. Of course, in some cultures, this has been a common theory for a very long time. In some regards, science is playing catch-up with these theories.
It’s been known for a long time stress can impact more than the brain, so why not the other way around? Could it be having a fall somehow jolts my brain into anxiety? Sure, why not? Could an infection also bring down my mood? Probably. Is my nervous system in such a precarious position that a slight upset in it puts me into overdrive? Sounds likely.
These connections may not be the whole reason for the trigger, but certainly can be a part of it. Knowing this can be of some comfort, and possibly even give you some hope things will eventually get back in order, or at least give you a plan on how to get there.
This is a lesson I think applies to me as well, but I’m still in the beginning stages of understanding it. As I said above, while I don’t have medical PTSD, medical situations are often not on the top of my list of things I enjoy. I’m getting better and I’m trying to understand.
I also experience dissociation and depersonalization, which can mean my connection/understanding with my mind and body can waiver. I don’t always put together things others might find obvious. I sometimes don’t notice if I’m sick, or do but ignore it entirely. I often don’t realize how much tension or anxiety my body is holding. I’m starting to see this is likely one of my next steps on my mental health journey, so we will see where this goes.
I wanted to write all this because I find great satisfaction in sharing my experiences in a way that can be helpful to others. So, I hope this has been useful to you in some way! Please let me know. Writing my heart out is also how I process things, so it’s very important to me. It took some emotional effort and time to write all this, but it’s worth it. It allows me to share parts of myself that aren’t always that comfortable to put into speech. It gives me something to look back on when I experience something similar in the future. It is something I can share with my support team and beyond. All those things are valuable to me.
Have you ever noticed an illness or ailment has triggered your mental illnesses to worsen? Do you have any additional thoughts on why that may be? What steps have you taken to remedy this? Do any of the reasons on my list stand out to you as something that may have impacted you? Further thoughts? Add them in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.
Getty image by cosmaa