Know Your Triggers | How to Manage Darker Days

This is part five of a series on how I manage my anxiety. Read the introductory post here.

Disclaimer: although I frame this post and the series around my anxiety, this applies to actually anyone who has negative moods that seem uncontrollable (fear, anger, worry, etc.). Read with that lens, even if you don’t struggle with anxiety. 

For the longest time, I perceived no rhyme nor reason to my anxiety. It came and went us unpredictably as the wind.

It could start mid-sentence. 

I’m kneeling next to a student’s desk, their screen tilted towards me. Their mood, frustrated and dejected; their goal, somehow master this essay I assigned them. I’m feeling fine–great even–as I explain what I so enjoy explaining: the art of writing. Then, with more-than-I-can-list-stimuli swirling around me in that high school classroom, I feel a shift. A bad shift. My stomach starts contracting, my cheeks grow warm, my thought process becomes strained. I widen my eyes in an attempt to keep a neutral but slightly positive facial expression as I feel the wave of anxiety wash over me. Just make it through thirty more minutes. 

It could start before I wake up. 

I open my eyes and the day has a hue of dread before my feet hit the floor. An hour of prayer and reading is woefully inadequate (would five be enough?), and I dutifully prepare my clothes and food for the day with no hint of joy. Should I text the fiancé and ask for prayer…again? Don’t I already do that too much? I’m drawn to my classroom by a sense of obligation and the faint hope that it will lift my spirits as it often does. Still. That 12-14 minute drive to school is punctuated with deep diaphragm breaths and reciting Psalm 73:26. 

Seems random, right? However, just because something isn’t immediately obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there. There were triggers throughout my day that, if I had been paying attention, could have shown me the trajectory of my mental state. First, why? Then, how?

swirling clouds over a bridge that accentuates the movement of wind

Why Should I Know My Triggers?

Because You Can Prepare for the Unchangeable

If you know something is coming that can trigger a negative reaction, you can prepare for it mentally and physically. When I know a particular event or interaction is coming up, I make sure I can unwind at the gym, talk to a friend, or just have quiet alone time right after. This way I’m not caught in a string of triggers and confined to mental suffering with no way of relief. Preparation can ease the difficulty. 

Because You Can Check Yourself

Even though my anxiety usually encourages a really bad mood, anxiety is not an excuse to be unkind. At all. Ever. When I’m aware that I’m feeling a reaction to certain stimuli, I’m better equipped to check myself instead of letting my inclinations run my facial expressions and words. 

Because You Can Change the Changeable

There are certain situations to just, well, avoid. If you know it wrecks your mental health, you also know that you should avoid it as much as you can. For example, staying up past 10 PM usually results in high levels of anxiety for me that night and the morning after. Yeah, that’s early for most people, but I strive to go to bed by 9 PM. Why suffer when I don’t have to?

How Can I Know My Triggers?

Knowing anything about your true self, especially regarding your health, requires intentional introspection. 

Keep Track of Your Moods & the Circumstances

When you feel off, write down when and where. When you feel intensely happy, write down when and where. When you’re having a full-blown anxiety attack, write down when and where. What’s on your mind? What has the last 24 hours been like? What do the next 24 hours hold as far as you know? You can use notes on your phone, a physical notebook, or some magical app that honestly probably exists. 

Details are only as important as you want them to be (they are extremely important to me). Honesty is the most important. Growth requires honesty. 

Take Notice of Patterns

Once you’ve tracked for about a month, sit down and look over the details. What patterns can you find? Which circumstances, interactions, or times of the day usually result in which moods? 

To give you an idea, here are some of the most common triggers of my anxiety:

  • Lack of meaningful prayer, journaling, and Bible study on a daily basis
  • Lack of nutritional food and regular exercise
  • Sleeping less than 9 hours regularly & staying up past 10 PM
  • Saying good-bye to the fiancé
  • Experiencing disrespect, injustice, or blatant insults
  • Not being on a routine
  • Big changes (good or bad)
  • Walking into a very unknown situation
  • Hearing “I need to talk to you”

I’ve found ways to control what I can and prepare for what I cannot. It all starts with paying attention to yourself and your circumstances. We do not have to be victims of our circumstances or our moods. Most of the time, it just takes some intentionality and practice.