Even though I’m having a tough day, I’m currently the strongest I’ve been in years in terms of my mental health. My OCD symptoms are manageable thanks to a combination of daily sertraline (generic for Zoloft), biweekly talk therapy, and lots of support from family and friends. However, even at my mentally fittest there are times when I experience spikes in my OCD manifestations–flare ups, if you will–that make some days more challenging than others. Here’s a list of some of my triggers, in no particular order, that kick my anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts, and compulsions into high gear.
- Lack of sleep: My mom and I have talked very frankly about my need for extended periods of restful sleep to manage my mental illness. This is a particularly tricky one as a mom of two little ones, the oldest of whom has never loved to sleep. If I’ve had consecutive nights without proper respite, I turn into a monstrous version of myself, snapping, retreating, crying easily, and experiencing a high frequency of intrusive thoughts and panic attacks.
- Hunger & poor eating habits: Hangry is a term that is on heavy rotation in my lexicon, as it’s often the best word to describe how I feel when I miss a meal. I cannot physically function when I feel hunger pangs in my stomach, my blood sugar plummets, my head becomes foggy, and I feel dizzy. States of “hanger” often lead to voracious snacking on highly fatty, sugary convenience foods (I’m looking at you Haagen Daazs!). After I gorge myself on junk, I often feel sluggish, guilty, and heavy; this is not the best version of myself either. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that is not helped by having dinners that consist of the scraps left behind on my toddler’s plate.
- Impending deadlines of great importance: As with most people, I tend to become rather consumed with worry when I am responsible for completing a major project in a timely manner. My need for perfection drives me to the aforementioned avoidance behaviors that I discussed in yesterday’s post. So perfection leads to procrastination leads to hastiness leads to dissatisfaction leads to insecurity leads to OCD flare up. I often leave projects to the last minute so that I don’t allow myself the time and mental space to obsess over perfecting every detail, which is a coping mechanism that is equal parts effective and stressful.
- Conflict, especially with other women or superiors: Any time I feel that there might be a need for confrontation of an issue, I melt into a puddle of panic. I create exhaustive mental checklists of how I might be able to skirt the topic with the person in question, and inevitably when I face the reality that the problem must be addressed, I compulsively rehearse every possible scenario I can imagine for how the confrontation might pan out. This is emotionally draining work and it usually only serves to blow the situation so far out of proportion that I end up looking completely insane to the other person.
- Breaks in my usual routine: Even positive interruptions to my normal schedule–think vacations, weddings, visits with dear friends, work functions, family parties–are difficult for me to handle. This one also plays into my textbook introversion. I am one of those people who needs solitude in order to refuel my tank, and when I am forced to break my routine to be in a different setting for extended periods, surrounded by lots of people (and small talk, ugh!), without any of my creature comforts, all of my OCD traits tend to peak.
- Bad news–personal, local, and global: A scary health diagnosis, a death in the family, a friend’s struggle with addiction, another terrorist attack on the news…any of these things will send me right down the rabbit hole of OCD behaviors.
Half the battle is simply being able to identify the triggers. It took many years of therapy, intimate talks with loved ones, self-reflection, and facing hard truths to be able to compile the above list. But now that I have my neat little list, I can watch out for these red flags more diligently, especially on the bad days. Do you know some of your triggers? What are they?