Human beings have been walking around on this planet for millennia and for the majority of that time we lived without all the technology and comforts that come along with that; we lived a dangerous, hand-to-mouth type existence. Our emotional system developed and passed down through our ancestors because it helped keep us safe. Every single one of us alive today is here because our ancestors were successful enough to be able to produce and rear their off-spring to the point that consecutive generations could come along.
We have three main emotion systems and compassion focused therapy represents this concept as an inter-relationship between three circles.
The first circle represents our “threat system” which we can think of as being our self-protection system. It becomes activated when, for example, we experience fear in a dangerous situation, or anger when someone treats us unfairly, or disgust when we step in a dog poo that hasn’t been cleaned up in the street.
The threat system operates on a better safe than sorry approach…it would rather be wrong nine times out of ten and make sure we are kept safe on the one occasion when we really were in danger, than take the risk of not getting it right when it counts. For example, thinking back to our ancestors, anyone who hesitated for a moment, rather than immediately taking action, when they saw a sabre toothed tiger probably didn’t survive long enough to procreate.
Humans are very social animals and this was another important consideration for the survival of our ancestors – there was safety from being part of a tribe as everyone collaborated and looked after each other. Anyone who was shunned by the group and cast out would more easily become prey to wild animals and less likely to be provide for themselves if injured. So, over the generations, an alertness to the potential for social rejection was also a vitally important aspect of our threat system.
The threat system is associated with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare our bodies to respond quickly to perceived threats; for example, by readying our muscles for immediate action – this is the so called “fight, flight, freeze or flop” response.
The second circle represents our “drive system”, which is where our “get up and go” and motivation hangs out. This is where we find a sense of reward or enjoyment when we engage in pleasurable, fun or meaningful activities. This system is associated with dopamine, which is a chemical in our brain that is linked to arousal, pleasure, motivation, reinforcement and reward. This system drives us to seek out experiences and things that will result in the release of dopamine…because it feels so good!
The third circle represents our soothing system which is where our sense of safety, contentment and social connectedness lives. This system has a strong association with being around those who we trust and love, along with activities that can calm us. So, for example, physical touch such as hugs with a loved one, or stroking a beloved pet, or engaging in slow calming activities such as yoga really tap into this system. The soothing system is associated with oxytocin which is sometimes known as the love hormone and is important for bonding, but is also connected with decision making and problem solving.
The threat system is a very sensitive system and will tend to over-ride the other two…it is our self-protection mechanism after all, so it is like our inner meerkat, constantly looking out for threats and alerting us at the slightest perceived danger to our being. In contrast, the other two systems need to be developed and encouraged – they take investment to nurture them.
The three interacting systems work best when they are balanced because the two pleasure based systems, and particularly the soothe system, can work to calm down the threat system and prevent it from getting too trigger happy – the soothe system works like a brake on the threat system and slows it down.
It’s not surprising that currently our threat systems are highly active. For the last few years the media have been full of scary headlines about Brexit, the global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the cost of living crisis.
Our threat system cannot resolve these fears as we really can’t predict how this is going to play out and what the future will look like, so it can’t stand down, “just in case” the worst case scenario happens.
Modern technology and media gives us a window through which we are exposed to the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings in ways that we have never been before; and as a social species this causes our threat system to go on hyper alert. This can mean that even though we are sitting at home, perfectly safe on our sofas watching the conflict unfold via our TV’s, our threat system responds as if we too are under attack and brings with it a raft of difficult and challenging emotions.
With the advent of news channels, the same information is fed to us over and over again on a constant loop – yes, situations can be fast paced, but not that fast paced! Our rational brains know that the bulletin we’re watching contains more or less the same information that was in the last one we watched 30 minutes ago…but our threat system perceives the loops as a constant stream of threat – remember it operates on a better safe than sorry principle, so the safest option is for it to consider each loop of the news cycle as a new threat….just in case…
So what can we do about this? Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the feelings that your threat system is bringing to you – these feelings are valid! It is okay to feel whatever it is that you are feeling in response to what you see going on. Name these feelings and acknowledge that they are there, but then notice what your threat system is doing with this – is it tangling you up in lots of worries about imagined future scenarios?
One way of managing this is, once you have named and acknowledged the feeling, then thank your mind for trying to protect you and reminding it that you are in fact not in any danger at this precise moment. You can use a grounding exercise, such as the one I describe here, to use your senses to focus on present awareness and stop your mind time travelling off into the imagined futures. This can help you start to tap in to your soothing system – remember this acts as a brake on the threat system.
Any activity that works to calm your nervous system down will be helpful at this point…even if it is just taking a long, deep breath in and out and shaking your limbs to help the tension leave your body. Although something as simple as this may seem insignificant, with practice, it can actually have a massive impact.
The way we breathe can be a very powerful intervention for activating our soothing system. The important thing is to breathe rhythmically – you can find an example of this in my earlier post here. Just two minutes of rhythmic breathing is enough for your soothing system to be able to put the brakes on your threat system, calming both your body and your brain, and will allow you to think more clearly.
There are apps that you can download to help you practice rhythmic breathing and many have free options. A couple of examples are:
It is important to remember that activating the soothing system doesn’t turn off the threat system, but it does get you in a better balance, which means you are more likely to be able to problem solve and make decisions in that moment.
Another strategy is to turn your attention to doing something that is rewarding and/or pleasurable, thereby activating your drive system, which will also help the system move towards balance.
Our bodies store feelings of threat and exercise is a fantastic way of burning off the excess adrenaline and cortisol that the threat system releases. Sleep is also important…our brains do a huge amount of emotional processing whilst we sleep, so doing what we can in order to get decent quality sleep is also another great way of caring for ourselves in difficult times.
And finally, a simple strategy that can make a big difference is to limit your exposure to the news cycle – perhaps just checking in once per day…that should be more than sufficient to keep abreast of the important issues but allowing plenty of time in between for you to promote your soothing and drive systems. calming both your body and your brain, and will allow you to think more clearly.
I hope you find it helpful to understand our experience of feelings in this way.