How to cope when a family member triggers your mental illness
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Have you ever rocked up to a family gathering only to have all your worst fears confirmed when you realise that the person who really grinds your gears is making an appearance?
Maybe it’s that uncle who knows exactly how to push your buttons, or a cousin who always makes you feel inadequate when they probe you on every aspect of your existence.
We all have family problems, but being around certain people can be especially hard if you have mental illness which is triggered by particular people.
Traumatic childhood events or past abuse can be a source of depression and anxiety, but plain old demanding behaviour or bullying can contribute to the problem too.
I spoke to Peter Shaw, a mental health blogger from Sheffield, who explained: ‘The particular person in my family who triggers my anxiety and depression, mostly my anxiety, does so because in the past they have been very difficult to live with and be around and have demeaned me and fueled my low self-esteem by making me feel like I am useless and worthless.’
For many of us the most painful aspect can be that we love and adore our families, but somehow they manage to bring out the worst in us.
‘I have even avoided meeting other family members because I knew they would be there, as I get so anxious thinking of seeing them and know that things they say to me or around me can set off my low self-esteem and depression.’
Although having a good support network is often a great comfort to those of us with a mental illness, close family members aren’t always the best people to go to for advice on the subject.
I know from my own experience that sometimes my friends and family don’t even notice that I’m feeling down, because they see me every day and can’t notice the signs.
I find it’s my distant acquaintances who can draw attention to huge changes in my life which could be the cause of my slip in health.
Christine Fortune, a psychotherapist and counsellor based in London, hits this nail on the head when she says: ‘It ily and friends are too subjective and ics themselves to give objective advice.’
‘I realise that it isn’t healthy to do this but I don’t want to go through the issue of explaining how I feel and how I am as I feel stigmatised by them and don’t want to cause further friction and arguments.
‘In the past whenever I have tried to talk to them about issues, they have been difficult and I have only ended up feeling worse.’
Ms Fortune advises that even with family support, it is important to speak to a professional, such as a GP, counsellor or therapist about your concerns.
I spoke to a woman in her thirties based in Hertfordshire who we’ll call Sophia, as she asked we don’t publish her real name.
‘If I try to converse they often belittle me. That then makes me withdraw more which leads to me feeling more anxiety and increases my self-doubt.’
Ms Fortune says: ‘If the proximity of a family member makes you feel distressed, frightened, highly anxious, or extremely angry then it makes sense to avoid them.’
If you are living in the family home and are financially dependent on them, it may be extremely difficult to avoid them.
Ms Fortune advises finding alone time when possible, and leaning on the other family members who you can confide in.
Stressful situations like family holidays or traditional celebrations like weddings and birthdays can also be a hotbed of fear and anxiety, which you may feel obliged to attend even if you know it’s going to trigger your mental illness.
‘Prepare yourself by finding out how long the visit will last and who else will be there. During the visit aim to be with people that you feel comfortable with and focus on them.’ she said.
You should also make sure there’s someone there you can trust, and agree on a signal for when you’re ready to leave so you can have an easy escape route.
Geraldine Joaquim, a clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist, explains that avoiding negative thinking should be a key part of the lead up to a stressful event.
‘Anxiety is increased with negative thinking, whenever we imagine a negative scenario our “fight or flight” system is activated as though it were happening for real, so stress hormones are released which affect our physical wellbeing, and we tend to think in a blinkered way with the spotlight of anxiety fixed on the visit.’
Learning to switch off from negative thoughts is a life skill which she says can be used in almost any stressful situation, and is all about putting your thoughts into context.
Ms Joaquim says that overcoming this hurdle is all about avoiding the negative self-talk and focusing on the positive things in life.
‘This helps to maintain a flow of serotonin, our go-to hormone to keep us on an even keel and it helps to cap the release of cortisol, the stress hormone,’ she explained.
Mindfulness, meditation and breathing techniques are all fantastic ways to reduce stress and if they are practised regularly, they become like second nature and you’ll instinctively fall back on them as helpful tools in your recovery.
‘It does not matter if your concerns sound trivial or far fetched, it is important to speak to someone outside your family who can be objective and give you or help you to find, the support you need.’