Spotting Mood Triggers

Ask the Expert Patient Health Guide
  • Stardust writes:

    “I'm really enjoying your series on mindfulness. I'm having trouble discovering my triggers.  Can you describe what it is like to discover something that is a trigger for depression or hypomania??  I just don't quite get it.”

    Okay, some quick background information. Over the past month, BipolarConnect has been publishing my five-part installment on mindfulness, part of a wider weekly series dealing with recovery practices and principles.

    “Mindfulness,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn and his co-authors in The Mindful Way Through Depression, “is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment.”
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    Through the process of the “mind watching the mind,” we become microscopically attuned to our mood and energy levels and various thoughts and feelings. An Australian study found that “successful patients” were the ones skilled at picking up their mood triggers and acting fast to intercept any impending mood swings, while the situation was still manageable.

    Often, the solution is fairly simple, such as a good night’s sleep or stopping to smell the roses.

    Fine, Stardust is saying in effect. But I need examples. I want to apply mindfulness to managing my bipolar and other ills, but first I need to know more about what these mood triggers are.

    Thank you very much, Stardust, for pointing out a key omission in my mindfulness series. Let me see if I can give you some examples:

    Sarah Russell PhD, author of the Australian study, gives the example of Jodie, who makes the necessary course corrections when she finds herself talking very quickly and craving excitement.

    Note that pressured speech and risk-taking are features of mania. So is lack of sleep. We may feel more productive and creative and sociable than usual. Everyone loves us in this state. But manias tend to turn on us. We may become distracted and angry and uninhibited. Then we engage in the type of behaviors that find us alone.

    So we need to pick up the early warning signs. Sleeping less and getting angry more are two of mine.

    Most of us need to keep a watch on whether we are more animated than usual, such as talking more and spending more.

    Anything likely to get a rise out of us should be regarded as a trigger, be it loud music or a troublesome acquaintance. So should anything likely to cause us stress. More on stress in a minute.

    We also need to spot a depression on the horizon. As with potential manias, we may actually feel deceptively good in the beginning. For me, I may be comfortable in the present moment, way too comfortable for my own good. Comfortable to the point where I lack the motivation to engage in work or play - or to break off my work or play and move on to something else. A quick break in my routine and getting out the door right now are two of my remedies.

    Keep in mind that only two of the nine DSM criteria for depression are actually mood-related. The others deal with physical and thinking states, namely - disturbances in sleep and eating patterns, excessive fatigue, thoughts of guilt, thoughts of suicide, and inability to concentrate.

  • Anniversaries - such as the death of a loved one - are potential depression triggers. Also, individuals prone to depression are likely to ruminate way too much. If you find yourself over-thinking on the nine billion reasons why your life sucks, then you need to get out of your head fast, This is when I usually head to the kitchen and start chopping vegetables. Nothing like a sharp blade going within milli-microns of my finger tips to turn my focus on something completely different.
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    The huge trigger - whether for mania or depression or anxiety - is stress. Money worries, relationship worries, work worries, driving in traffic - you name it. If you see stress coming, you need to act on it now. It may mean breaking off a disturbing phone conversation. It may involve taking a sick day.

    My next articles in my recovery series will be dealing at great length with stress. Mindfulness and stress-management are very much connected. To act in a positive manner to stress, first we have to be mindful of what our stressors are.

    Finally, we all have our unique triggers, things that seemingly affect no one else except you or I. Having to phone tech support is my great achilles heel. I literally feel my mind - as well as my sanity - running away. I achieved something of a break-through the other day when I realized that the underlying issue probably has to do with my feeling that I am not in control of the situation. That I am helpless, totally at the mercy of a stranger I have no trust in to rescue me.

    Really, you do not want to be around me in this state.

    So part of what I need to work on is to pick up when I start to feel myself losing control, and then figure out what to do. This is what mindfulness and identifying mood triggers is all about. As you can see, Stardust, I’m still learning.
Published On: February 18, 2008