SWG is an artist who lives with mental health issues.

Over the past 30 years I have discovered and tested different strategies to manage my MHIs, this site is a way to share my insights. I’m not a trained mental health practitioner but have the lived experience as a service user, have done lots of reading, reflecting, therapy, groupwork and courses in therapy and art.

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Overwhelm and Triggers.

People who have experienced trauma and/or long term exposure to abuses of power especially in childhood can be triggered in situations where they feel out of control or powerless. Certain everyday events that seem minor can threaten to overwhelm them. These events act as triggers to the original trauma and may be as small as someone’s tone of voice, the way they move or some unexpressed expectation.

The triggers act on a very subtle level as subconscious parts of us are hypervigilant to any potential threats. For example, recently, I met up with a new friend for a cup of tea, they talked non stop and were very critical of others, within minutes I felt trapped, dizzy and exhausted. I made my excuses and left and will not develop the friendship as I picked up on a part of this person that was highly critical and arrogant.

Everyone is different; for me the following are just some situations where I can get triggered and/or feel overwhelmed: being in an unfamiliar group; having lots of conversations or people around me talking simultaneously; being obligated into social situations; a long to-do list; unexpected and sudden changes; loud noises; travelling fast; disagreements; humiliation; people expressing anger; forceful people; too much physical exertion; fatigue; holidays; witnessing people shouting at children or animals; feeling unsafe in a space and being unable to leave immediately; men in my house.

At the time I can panic, dissociate, hyperventilate, get agitated, lose sense of reality, feel dizzy, get brain fog, feel unable to think or make a decision, space out, have another part of me come forward that acts out or uses behaviour to protect me that may appear over confident or aggressive.

Later when the source of the trigger has gone I can find myself shaky, very emotional, frightened, exhausted, cold, sometimes furious and vengeful and an overwhelming need to be alone in silence or to walk for miles in wild places The need to recover can take weeks depending on the level of overwhelm. It also may take me a while to figure out what exactly was the trigger.

I have learnt the hard way but slowly I have come to know my triggers and how to prevent and exit situations. It’s still a work in progress and even after years of therapy I still find myself in situations where I struggle to reinforce boundaries with others who want more than I can give and I have to end the friendship because its just too much for me to cope with. Sometimes it’s just easier not to have relationships as it takes so much energy having to say no, explain or work on continually asserting my needs for safety and time alone.

And even knowing all of this stuff, it’s still difficult and it’s so tiring when it happens again and again.

This is what I have learnt:

  1. To let go of the people with whom I feel drained, exhausted or who refuse to accept that I cannot be who they want me to be. Even family.
  2. To ask my friends and family to make prior arrangements to visit and to not just show up.
  3. To negotiate an end time with others and for them to leave after that agreed point. Open-ended arrangements just fill me with anxiety, for example a friend came to stay ‘for a few days’ recently, I found myself being really uptight and angsty until we agreed when they would leave.
  4. Before I agree to do something I ask for clarification to make sure that I can fulfil the request and not let others down. I ask for time to make a decision. If I feel pressured I say “No”. I know that other peoples’ crises belong to them and that it isn’t my responsibility to rescue them if it’s going to make me ill. They usually find someone else to help them.
  5. To limit daily walks to an hour and a half & only do 3 hour walks when I can spend the following day in recovery. Learning to manage my inner dictator who takes me on manic marathon walks is a life long task.
  6. To be very careful with whom I walk. Walking is rejuvenating but can be the opposite with someone with whom I do not feel comfortable.
  7. To plan a days rest after travelling to recuperate.
  8. To trust my initial reactions when I am in unfamiliar situations and to leave as soon as possible at the first sign of others being dominant, unkind, overbearing, sarcastic, intrusive, loud, insensitive, aggressive.
  9. Holidays are difficult unless I go alone and have really quiet accommodation or have negotiated time out from those I have gone away with.
  10. Social gatherings are a challenge so I try to limit attending. Otherwise I usually prepare by having a stock answer when someone says “What do you do?”
  11. If I have a lot of things to do I make sure I space them out over a long period with chunks of time to rest. I start planning for Christmas from September 1st.
  12. Rushing is a sure fire way to get overwhelmed. Planning ahead and good time management is crucial.
  13. Lots of background conversations or noise stop me from hearing others so have to meet in quiet places.
  14. Lots of conversations with different people in a short space of time leaves me frazzled and for days I go over each conversation. This is where quiet time or time out alone in nature is crucial and to space out social engagements.
  15. I love dancing so go out later when an event has “got going” so that I can get straight on the dance floor and avoid social engagement.
  16. Artificial ways of increasing energy like caffeine or chocolate are just ways of putting off the resting process and when it finally hits takes longer and is usually accompanied by deeper levels of exhaustion and headache. Even decaffeinated coffee is out.
  17. Internal meetings (I.e. with all my alters) and consensus decision making is the way forward to making better decisions.
  18. Meditation and mindfulness help to have a sense of spaciousness, it’s easier to meditate outside in summer. Mantra chanting does help to relieve anxiety if I catch it early before it takes me over and becomes a panic attack.
  19. Eating non processed nutritious food regularly helps to manage blood sugar levels thus reducing anxiety, mood swings and fatigue.
  20. Engaging in textiles, painting and writing are all ways to move through a creative process which gives me a sense of achievement and control.
  21. Worry drains me so getting good support regularly is essential. I have weekly therapy.
  22. One of the main ways to counteract overwhelm is to sleep and then to walk in wild places where no one goes. It’s in these places I connect with something greater.
  23. Relationships are difficult, I need space. Friendships are my go to.
  24. My energy is in limited supply and no matter how great I feel today or how exciting an idea is my energy will run out quicker than my enthusiasm and even though this is a bummer it is how it is.
  25. I never rely on others to get me home, I always have an exit strategy, a map or up to date travel timetable.
  26. Writing everyday is my way of checking in with all of my parts so that I can attend to them. This has been one of the best daily self care strategies I have ever had.

Having CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) takes a lot of self care management and is tiring to live with, please take care of yourself the best you can and find strategies that work for you that do not damage you or others further. Therapy is a good start but always ask if the therapist you are enquiring about does have training in dealing with this issue. A lot of them don’t.

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Acts of kindness have been shown to increase our self esteem by creating a sense of belonging, they reduce our sense of isolation by building bonds with others. We are social beings but modern life can leave us feeling alone and the increasing dependence on social media can sometimes promote the idea that everyone has a wonderful life when we’re not feeling good about ourselves.

Mental health issues can change the way we think, when I’m in a difficult place I just can’t engage with others, the tendency is to become reclusive and protect myself from a world that seems too overwhelming. I tried to volunteer for the National Trust but even though it was only a few hours a week, it was still too much. I felt ashamed and my self esteem took a huge nose dive. It took me ages to feel ok again because not only was I coping with depression I was also wrestling with the internalised shame of having mental health issues and feeling a failure when I’d done some volunteering which was “supposed”to help me improve.

When I disclosed I had to leave because of my illness one of the well meaning workers asked “But doesn’t it make you feel better when you get here?” It was difficult to explain especially as I knew that my symptoms were going to get worse and soon I wouldn’t even be able to get there and even if I did I wouldn’t have the energy to “pass” i.e. pretend to be ok. It’s hard for others who’ve never had serious MHIs to understand what it’s like and that their logical arguments just don’t help. Empathy and compassion do. They do not understand that our sense of overwhelm comes from traumatic events that continue to affect us in very powerful ways.

It’s also hard for us to make sense and communicate what goes on inside in coherent ways if we are triggered. A lot of the time I can’t make sense of what’s going on inside myself never mind explain it.

Here’s a short video about CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)


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Individuation and therapy.

Over a period of 7 years my therapist helped me to become aware of, accept the existence of and how to attend to the inner parts of myself with care and sensitivity. I continue to do this but it is a lifetime’s journey and sometimes certain parts of me (alters) take the lead and operate unilaterally, however, on the whole, my way of making decisions is radically different from before therapy. Back then it was hugely chaotic.

Right now I have a new therapist who was trained by my previous therapist who retired in 2020. This is good as there is continuity, however there is the inevitable comparison and the process of grieving for my previous therapist. Since working with the new therapist there has been a pandemic, the death of my mother and my youngest child leaving home. A lot of changes.

I’ve been working on 2 levels of individuation, i.e. the separating from my old therapist who I felt was like a father and the process between myself and my daughter.

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