How to Cope When a Pop Culture Phenomenon Triggers You

By Dawn O’Malley, Psy. D. | May. 08, 2019

Across pop culture, discussion about mental health has increased. That’s good news given the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health in our country. We need more dialogue and openness to help grow awareness and support for those facing mental illness and addiction.
 
We need people like Lady Gaga, who in her Oscar award acceptance speech for “A Star is Born”mentioned how proud she was to be part of a film that discusses mental health issues. Or Serena Williams, who openly talks about the impact of postpartum depression. 
 
This kind of openness can help raise awareness and let others facing similar challenges know they’re not alone. Yet at the same time, when a pop culture phenomenon that addresses such challenges goes viral—like the movie “A Star is Born,” which talks about addiction and suicide—the constant media and social attention could have an adverse impact on some. 
 

What Does it Mean to be Triggered?

For people with mental health issues, especially those who’ve experienced trauma, some conversations might act as a “trigger.” In other words, the environmental exposure—in casual conversation, in the news, on social media or elsewhere—might cause the person to respond as though they are currently experiencing their past trauma. Triggers evoke different symptoms in different people, but the shared effect is distress. The body and mind can feel as though they’re facing a crisis situation when triggered. Here are some tips that may help if you become triggered.
 
Regulate. The first thing an individual facing distress should do is to try to regulate their emotions back to a normal range. The goal is to do something grounding to bring yourself out of the “trigger” moment and back to the present. For example: focus on what it’s like to be sitting in your chair, or to have shoes on your feet. Paying close attention to an external task can also be an effective way to feel more grounded in the present.
 
Disengage. With technology so prevalent in our daily lives, certain triggers can be hard to avoid. For example, if a celebrity dies by suicide, your friends might begin messaging about it on Facebook. If you experience a negative reaction to their messages or feel triggered from the news in general, allow yourself to step away from your screen and take time to recalibrate. 
 
Record. Because the brain is highly complex, the exact trigger might be harder to consciously identify than you’d think. So, when you notice that you’re feeling triggered, take notes and gather information. When are you feeling distress? What’s happening? How intense is the feeling? It can be extremely helpful to record that kind of information over a series of days or weeks, then review it to uncover any common factors. 

From there, the next step is to identify if these factors can be addressed. Can you limit or prevent what’s causing the distress? The more a person understands their own triggers, the better they can prepare for and manage them. 
 
Individual responses to pop culture and media vary greatly and every person needs to act in a way that protects their unique needs. If that means limiting social media exposure to just 15 minutes a day or not watching that popular Netflix series about suicide everyone is talking about—anything is a positive step towards understanding your own needs. 
 
 
Dawn O’Malley, Psy.D., is alicensed psychologist and a Peer Advisor at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare.She has spent more than 25 years working with children and families, with specialized expertise in trauma therapies. She has designed and implemented trauma-informed programs for both residential and community-based agencies. She has served as the Clinical Supervisor for Partnering for Excellence, a state-wide pilot program to improve outcomes for children in state custody diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dawn is a Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to researching and training on the effects of adverse experiences on the developing brain.
   


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