Taking Control Of Your Mental Health & Understanding Your Triggers

As I have written and spoken about, everyone falls on a spectrum of well-being. I like to think about this spectrum as a ruler, on which you may slide up and down.  Some days we feel like a 10 and some days we feel like a 2.  When we feel like a 2 often or for an extended period of time, seeking professional help is important and valuable.  Emotional, physical, mental, and social factors can all contribute the where on that ruler we fall.  From day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-to-year that spot may vary, which is normal.  Every person fluctuates but learning how to manage those fluctuations so they may be less intense can be very powerful in helping us live the life we want to live.  Understanding yourself and your triggers is a great way to combat those variations.

This time of the year can be full of exams, holidays, training trips, more intensity, or whatever may increase your stress levels; it is important to know and therefore manage those triggers.  Triggers are described as external events or circumstances that may create uncomfortable emotional, mental, and sometimes physical symptoms, such as anxiety, panic, discouragement, despair, negative self-talk, headaches, or uneasiness.  Everyone has different and unique triggers, which may increase these symptoms.  Reacting to our triggers is normal, but if we don’t recognize them and respond to them appropriately, they may actually cause a downward spiral, making us feel worse and worse.

A great tool to use to better understand yourself is to write down on a separate piece of paper anything that may increase the uncomfortable feelings mentioned above, uneasiness, or distress.  This may take time and it can be done whenever you experience or think about your triggers.  This is not to say you have to avoid these triggers – knowing what can affect you is the first step in being able to manage your reactions more effectively.

Some examples of common triggers can be but are not limited to:

  • The anniversary dates of losses or trauma
  • Frightening news events
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Stress
  • Family friction/complications
  • The end of a relationship
  • Spending too much time alone
  • Feeling like you are being judged, criticized, teased, or put down
  • Financial concerns
  • Physical illness/injury
  • Sexual harassment
  • Being around someone who has treated you badly
  • Certain smells, tastes, or noises which may remind you of a hard time
  • Being yelled at

Once you know and understanding your triggers you have the ability to change the way they affect you.  We talk constantly about self-care, which means making sure that you have measures in your daily life that allow you to take a deep breath, relieve some stress, and have fun.  It is not always easy to do these self care practices when we are overly stressed and overwhelmed, however that is the time you need to do them most.  One of my professors said it perfectly: in looking at yourself would you treat others the way you treat yourself?  Would you say the things to others you say to yourself?  Being able to reflect on these questions can better help you understand if you are giving into the triggers which may be pushing you over the edge or if you are managing well.  Making self-care a priority in your life can help you avoid those fluctuations in your ruler.  These do not prevent all triggers from affecting us, however they may help keep those symptoms away longer or the symptoms may be less intense.  Some things that may help when you feel these triggers affecting you may be:

  • Make sure I do everything on my daily self-care list
  • Call a support person and ask them to listen while I talk through the situation
  • Do a half-hour relaxation exercise
  • Write in my journal for at least half an hour
  • Exercise
  • Pray
  • Play the piano or work on a fun activity for 1 hour
  • Play games

Creating a toolbox of strategies is something everyone should have, as mentioned each person is individual so what may work for one may not for another, which is completely fine.  When our toolbox doesn’t work and we feel so overwhelmed with emotions seeking professional help is very valuable.  Knowledge is power, so know yourself and have strategies in place so you are able to live how you want.


Emily Brunemann by Mike Lewis (1 of 1)

Photo courtesy of Mike Lewis.

Emily Brunemann is a professional swimmer, training with Club Wolverine at the University of Michigan. She graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan in 2009 and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Social Work, with a concentration in interpersonal practice and mental health. Emily is interning in the University of Michigan Athletic Department counseling services and helping with the Athletes Connected program. She is a former team captain, NCAA champion, 2013 Open Water World Cup Circuit Champion and a member of the US National Team since 2007. 

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Rudolf Willemse
6 years ago

Thank you Emily.

8 years ago

Thanks Emily
This is really great-we have an 11 year old swimmer that is finding life challenging at the moment-I look forward to sharing this with her. I find even talking about mental health issues really difficult so this is a great opening.

Coach Mike 1952
8 years ago

Thank you for the great article, Emily. It is absolutely vital that an awakened approach to mental health be taken, & so it is really great to see how SwimSwam is taking the lead in this arena.

Coach Kirner
8 years ago

Emily – A perfect example of how sound mental training can be applied to our young swimmer’s success. Your immense experience both athletically and academically can help remove the stigma behind daily mental health challenges. Very well put.

Suny Cal
8 years ago

Thanks, Emily. Great article. So much information I can relate to as a parent of a division 1 swimmer who has struggled with all the pressures. We will definitely try your suggestions!

About Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann  Emily Brunemann is an American open water swimmer from Crescent Springs, Ky. Born Sept. 19, 1986 Brunemann was born into an extremely athletic family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her parents, James and Mary Lynn, were both both student-athletes at Xavier, and her brother, Christopher, played football at Western Kentucky. Brunemann is …

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