It is difficult not to think of emotions as direct responses to causes, or triggers in the mental health world. And people who are in counseling spend a great deal of time identifying triggers and trying to make them less, well, triggery.
I very common response to the question: “what is making you anxious?” or “what is making you depressed?” is simply ‘I dunno’. This demonstrates two problems. First, this person does not have a firm grasp of the cognitive aspect of their emotional state. Something is probably causes the distress. But, here is the second problem, that distress might not be currently happening.
Certainly we can all relate to the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Or we can understand how a single drop of water can overflow an already filled bucket. This tends to be how I look at anxiety and depression.
A whole litany of things can be going wrong; stressful week of work, didn’t sleep well, fighting with your parents, etc. But for whatever reason none of those things have thrown you into panic or depression or really distress of any kind. But then a family gathering is planned and all of a sudden you simply cannot go. There is just no room in your bucket for another drop. And it doesn’t really matter if that drop is a good thing or a bad thing, it just won’t fit.
One of the most interesting things about anxiety is that the top five most anxiety inducing things in a normal life are all “good” things. Marriage, having a baby, buying a house, buying a car, and gradations, are the top five. All good right? Obviously we recognize the stress within these situations, because they are big, and most of us have been through them. But why don’t we recognize the stress in family dinners or planning parties or even picking out pants at the store?
There isn’t really a list of things that never cause stress and a list of things that always does. And because of that, it is hard to know what is filling up your bucket, and it is even harder to know when the level is close to the top.
The real danger here is that it becomes easy to wrongly attribute blame for stress. A couple years ago I would get massive amounts of anxiety about going to Tiger’s games. Clearly the stress wasn’t the game, I’ve been to hundreds without problem. So what was it? It was hard to identify and it would’ve been easy for me to say ‘I get stressed at these games so I will no longer go to these games’. And I might have even seen a result from that, it is hard to say. But in doing so, I would’ve missed out on one of my favorite activities.
Properly identifying stress as it happens is a real goal and key to fighting anxiety and depression. Being aware that you are taking in things that could be weighing you down is the best way to ward them off and feel better. Not only will you identify the real trigger and hopefully find resolution, but you won’t build walls that don’t belong and make recovery even harder.
And believe me when I tell you, this is the single hardest thing about recovery. Getting to fully understand what will impact you in what way and how much of it you can stomach is nearly impossible to know. And to top it all off, the target is moving.
But nonetheless, it is how we get better. This is easily the most applicable ‘lesson’ I have ever given on mental illness. Your stress and anxiety works generally like mine, and you have a bucket too. Although your bucket might be deeper, or emptied more easily, or filled more slowly, it is there, and at times I overflows.