Time and time again I see people tossing around the phrase “bipolar trigger” with disregard. Unfortunately, not understanding what a trigger is can create a number of problems in trying to figure out and manage the Disorder. It creates a misconception that causes a number of people to see their loved ones as rapid-cycling when they are not.
So what is a “trigger”? A trigger is a circumstance that kicks off an unwell cycle. It can be anything; ranging from a smell that kicks up forgotten memories, to being assaulted, to a movie. to the sky being blue. Here’s the important distinction- it kicks off an unwell cycle. It doesn’t create temporary spikes, general moodiness, or just discomfort. It is a circumstance that starts an unwell cycle.
Let’s have a look at some examples with visuals to help demonstrate this better. We’ll get to why it’s important in a minute.
10 – Full Blown “I’m The Reincarnation of Jesus” Mania
8 – Hypomania
4-6 – Normal Person Range
3 – Mild Depression
0 – Suicidal Depression
Increments shown are just for an easy visual reference. Could be hours, days, weeks, or months depending on the person.
Blue Circle denotes a trigger.
So here’s what a normal person’s moods will look like.
Notice how the person’s mood stays pretty much in the range of 4 to 6. 5 would be a fairly typical baseline for a number of people. Different people may have different baselines. Mine for years and years was about a 3. I’ve met other Bipolars who had a baseline more around the 7 mark. They were intense, volatile and constantly on the go. They were also very easy to tip into a manic cycle.
This second chart denotes a Depressive cycle. The blue circle is the “trigger”. That may have been bumping into an ex you’re still tender about, someone dying, losing your job, getting passed over for a promotion, a television commercial, the smell of a turkey dinner that reminds you of your dead mother, or again; the sky being blue. For whatever reason, your brain “triggers” and you crash straight the fuck into depression. Your baseline is now around the 1 mark, shifting slightly up and down. Depressive people don’t tend to be as chaotic as escalated people. Most of the time, your brain is lethargic and can’t think worth a shit.
This third chart shows a typical manic cycle, crash, and the start of rebalancing. The blue circle on this chart denotes the manic trigger. Notice how the person’s mood rockets upwards? There’s nothing slow or subtle about it. The person’s baseline shifts to about an 8 and starts bouncing around up in that area. Eventually, the cycle runs it’s course, and the person’s brain drops off into the abyss. Over the next little bit, the person’s brain will raise up out back to their “normal” baseline. But note how the person drops to a 0? This is common. It’s not difficult to associate suicides with this severe drop off. The person just got off a run of fucking up and destroying their life around the 8, then they fall to 0, an area that would normally make them more vulnerable to self-harm and suicide; and then it’s no difficult step to kill yourself when you weigh everything you fucked up in this cycle and throughout your life.
Why Is This Important?
Now, I’m going to take a stab at what you’re wondering.
“Dennis, is this more detail specific bullshit that only you give a shit about?”
No. And here’s why. When I was in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, my therapist explained an unwell cycle being like a train leaving a station. You can stop it much easier as it is leaving the station as opposed to when it gets going full bore. A person that can identify their trigger and the escalation/fall in Time 3-5 can take measures to derail their unwell cycle. A Bipolar person can significantly minimize the effects of an unwell cycle or possibly avert all the bullshit that falls from about Time 5 on out.
Once you get to Time 5, you start seeing the spikes up and down. I regularly see people refer to these as “triggers”. They aren’t. Talking to your significant other and them getting pissed off at you isn’t a trigger. A good day, a suicidal day aren’t triggers.
Those things are all just a normal part of being Bipolar.
The trigger is what occurred at the Blue Circle. That’s it. Everything else is just the fallout from the cycle the person is in.
I beat the drum loudly that mental illness is AN ILLNESS. It behaves in certain predictable ways. You won’t always pick up on them but with the help of a significant other or loved one, they can point out when you’re starting to get more severe or your mood drastically changes. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity is small. Self-management is the best way to head off unwell cycles. It requires practice, practice, and more practice. I highly recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to learn techniques to do so.
How Do I Use This Information?
Unwell cycles get worse the more you dwell on the triggering circumstance.
The best thing to do is shove it straight out of your mind and take some actions that run counter to the potential cycle coming.
*If Depression is looming- put on some upbeat music and exercise, watch a comedy, read a book, do some hobby stuff that will take your focus off the negative thoughts.
*If Mania is looming- slow your mind down, listen to some peaceful music, remove yourself from stress, take a nap, anything that will help you relax and shift your thoughts away from the trigger.
Nowadays, I can usually catch about 90% of my shifts. They’ve gotten more subtle since I started on meds, which is both good and bad. Good in that they’re more subtle, bad in that they’re easier to miss, though the cycles are also milder. Triggers can come out of anywhere.
For example, some of mine-
“The Simpsons” movie is a severe depressive trigger. I got this movie to watch with my ex-Fiancee after she got home from work. Before the movie she said she had something important to talk to me about. After it was her “I need to leave you” conversation. So my brain associates the movie with that emotional pain.
Fight or Flight response. I’ve had several hypomanic cycles start because apparently the Fight or Flight response has a similar physiological affect on the body as a hypomanic cycle. It essentially tricks the Bipolar mind into thinking it is already in a cycle.
Using this knowledge is simple once I have it. One, I just avoid the Simpsons movie unless I’m testing my antidepressant. If someone else is watching it, I’ll just go somewhere else and focus on something else, force the thoughts and feelings of that conversation out of mind. By not dwelling, I interrupt the Depressive crashing.
It’d be great if we could all avoid Fight or Flight, but unfortunately that’s not feasible. Knowing that it will start a hypomanic cycle for me, I plan accordingly for it. After the circumstance, I will pay closer attention to my thoughts, double check any “great” ideas with people that I trust that know me well, and not make any frivolous purchases.
I know and am prepared for these circumstances because I know many of my triggers and how to identify the symptoms that indicate my brain is going to shit. You can learn those things too.
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