When You Get Triggered: How To Self Soothe

Self Soothing means basically to take actions externally and internally to calm your brain and nervous system when feeling overwhelmed.


Note that overwhelmed doesn’t just mean when you feel strong emotions that are very high and are controlling you more than you making choices.  It includes when you feel numb or detached, more extreme detachment is known as dissociation.  Intense reaction or detached reaction, both are the result of emotion that is so strong and overwhelming that the nervous system goes into a survival mode: fight, flight or freeze reactions. you loose your power of choice and reasonability.


Your brain and nervous system can become flooded with intense emotion or numb and detached even if in that moment there is nothing actually occurring around you that is threatening. When this happens it is commonly referred to as being triggered: when something causes a strong unpleasant and negative response that contains fear, pain, flashbacks, sadness, or pain.  This includes physical symptoms such as shaking, fainting, fatigue and loss of appetite. 

Research (Gottman Institute) indicates that when in an argument, when triggered, it takes a minimum of 20 minutes to help the nervous system calm down enough where emotion is less strong and reason is at least slightly stronger.  Note that reasoning can best occur with lower levels of emotional intensity are calm. This can yield reality-informed decisions that are more likely to effect a more preferable outcome.

Favoring reasoning is also helpful when in difficult conversations and can help calm emotional intensity. The guideline from the Gottman Institute is that when you do become flooded or triggered to any degree, it is best to call a TIME OUT for yourself, no matter what the other person is doing, for no less than 20 minutes, but most often longer, up to 24 hours or more.  It is advised to take longer than shorter time to calm down because you can think you are calm yet your nervous system can still be revved up or in a detached, numb state. 


A key factor: In a relationship situation, take a time out that includes being in a different room or away from the person so that your are not re-triggered.  Don’t try to figure things out or consider actions until you are sure you are calm.

One of the ways to check that is to have a pulse monitor that you can place on your finger, and make sure your nervous system is at a resting pulse rate. It is typical that when triggered the pulse can race to 100 bpm and higher. It is important to know what your resting pulse rate is when you are not triggered so you can have an accurate measure of when you are actually calm.

When you are calm, you will be able to use the reasoning function of your brain, step back and see a bigger picture, and if this is a relationship trigger, be able to see the positive elements about the person and your connection with them as well as the problematic aspects that triggered your system. As calming happens, self-awareness begins to return.

Self-awareness has two elements. The first element is awareness, not flooded nor blended with the upset (a rant), but aware of what is actually going on inside of you. The second element, one that is often overlooked in relationships, is the awareness of YOUR impact on the other person.

Most often when triggered and starting to recover, you may be tempted to focus on your “intention” as in, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” It is far more effective to be aware and focus on the impact whatever you said or did had and is having on the other person, “I am sorry I hurt you with what I said.” There is a far better chance of the other person softening and also returning the kindness and addressing the impact that had on you. Your intention wasn’t the problem. Your behavior was, as well as theirs.

How to self-soothe?  Here are some resources for you to discover what works best for your nervous system, what doesn’t work, and how to create your won protocol for when you do get triggered, Click Here, for 101 Things To Do When It Feels Too Much.

Don Elium, MA MFT

Don Elium, MA MFT

As you also search the internet and books for ideas to build your own Self-Soothing System/Protocol, remember that Compassion - Kindness -Mercy - Honesty Turned Inward needs to be an essential element of your personal protocol.  These internal attitudes help you soften into your humanity instead of getting lost in the loops of intellectual/detached, absolute and extreme thinking loops that hurts you and the other. And, you can’t give to others what you don’t really have to give to yourself.  Many find this phase helpful in softening into Compassion, Kindness, Mercy and Honesty turned inward:

“There is nothing wrong with you, this is just much harder than you expected.”

Visit The MIGHTY for excellent support for a wide range of psychological needs!


This article gives a summary of how the nervous system reacts to triggers and threat for deeper understanding and more suggested tactics to avoid being triggered and soothe when your nervous system is triggered.


For psychotherapy sessions with Don Elium, MA MFT in Walnut Creek, CA, you can contact him at 925 256-8282 phone/text and at his website: https://don-elium-psychotherapy.com