Triggered has become a very popular adjective over the years and the meaning has gotten super watered down…
So, I like to use emotional flooding as a solid definition for getting “triggered.”
According to Dr. John Gottman, emotional flooding is our nervous system in overdrive.
It happens in our relationships when someone says or does something that sets off your internal threat-detection system. It happens when you’re reminded of something from your past or when you experience something distressing. You can think of emotional flooding as that cascade of symptoms that happens when you’re confronted with a trigger (real or imagined).
Your sympathetic nervous system jumps into action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought and there is a decrease of activity in your prefrontal cortex, the center of higher cognition. It is not possible to ‘reason’ traumatized people out of feeling overwhelmed when their bodies are experiencing strong body-based responses. We must recognize when we are emotionally flooded and work on creating safety, before reasoning and understanding.
Creating awareness about your own personal symptoms of emotional flooding is very important. The more aware you are that you’re becoming flooded, the more likely you will be able to calm your nervous system and communicate effectively.
Some common symptoms of emotional flooding are:
It can be really hard to do anything when you’re emotionally activated. Communication becomes especially difficult and this is why I recommend having a plan in place first.
Here are some things you can discuss with the people close to you (most helpful to do this when you’re feeling calm):
Answering these questions for yourself and having discussions about these topics with the people close to you can be extremely helpful. You’ll be way more prepared when a triggering event happens.
Self-regulation is what you can do while you’re feeling triggered. It is a set of skills that allow us to regulate our emotions and decrease feelings of distress. These conscious or unconscious mechanisms reduce our level of pain and re-establish our equilibrium.
Developing self-regulation strategies is possible at any age. It begins with becoming aware of where we go with our feelings, thoughts, and actions when feeling discomfort or pain. Then we can make deliberate choices to develop new, useful strategies.
You can use this list as a starting point to develop your own self-regulation toolkit.
I recommend keeping a list on your phone or somewhere easy to access with several things you can do/use when you’re feeling triggered. You want to make this as easy as possible for yourself because when you’re overwhelmed it will be ten times harder to think about.
Everyone will become emotionally flooded from time-to-time. The most important thing to remember is that you can get through it, you can prepare for it, and you can learn to reduce the severity over time. The more prepared you are for these moments, the easier they will get, and they will likely decrease as you gain more self-regulation strategies. Working with a therapist can also be a great way to learn more regulation skills, talk about your emotional distress, and get to the root of what is causing the emotional flooding.
I have an entire course dedicated to learning about triggers, trauma responses, and how to support people who have been through trauma. You can learn more about my Heal Together course here.
Whitney Goodman, LMFT is a therapist, author, and mother on a quest to make mental health information accessible and easy to understand.
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