If I asked you to name the three systems that regulate your emotions, you’d probably able to get at least one: the threat system. The other two might be a little harder to identify. They are the drive system and the soothing system.
The Threat System
You may know this system by another name: Fight-or-Flight (or the newer and more encompassing Fight-Flight-or-Freeze) system. This is your danger detector and the part of your brain that focuses on protecting you from dangers. This system includes behaviors such as fighting, fleeing, and freezing and it includes emotions such as anger, anxiety, and disgust. These are emotions designed to motivate us to move away from dangers. This system is the most dominant system and it affects what we pay attention to. Because negative events are more likely to harm or kill us than positive ones, our brains are wired to always be on the lookout for negative experiences and our brains tend to remember the one negative experience among a dozen positive experiences. This is the system behind generalized anxiety disorder and phobias.
The Drive System
This system regulates your drives and your excitement. It is the system which motivates people to pay attention to things that are helpful to them and motivates them to pursue these things once they are identified. Examples of such helpful things include food, shelter, and social relationships. Some of the primary feelings of this system are excitement and joy. These are emotions designed to motivate us to move toward helpful resources.
The Soothing System
This system also relates to what we commonly call positive emotions. This system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” system. This name gives you a clue about its role. Unlike the other two systems which are designed to motivate you to actions, this system’s purpose is to help you slow down, conserve energy, rest and recuperate after other actions.
Why is it worth knowing about these three systems? It’s important because we can be more intentional about how our emotions affect us and how we can regulate them. Our brains evolved to serve us under very different living conditions. The way we live has changed quicker than our brains have so sometimes the way our brains act isn’t helpful for our current situations. For example, most of us have a lot of stress and anxiety in our lives. Two hundred thousand years ago, when the early humans were existing in small groups of people as hunter-gatherers, they lived very differently than we did. When they realized that they were in danger from a predator, say a cave lion, their threat system turned on and helped them deal with the danger. When they were free from the danger, the threat system turned off and they went on about their lives. Today, we live in such a way that our threat systems are almost always activated. Deadlines, bills, job worries, rude drivers in traffic, politics– all of these trigger our threat system and keep it triggered throughout the day. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our threat systems rarely turn off. And as a result, we flood our bodies with stress hormones and neurochemicals such as cortisol. But we can overcome this tendency by learning how to harness our other two systems, particularly the soothing system, to calm the threat system. When we do this, our stress and anxiety levels drop and we begin to experience mental and physical relief.
Here’s another reason to understand these systems: when you talk harshly to yourself, you trigger your threat system. It’s little different than if a stranger walked up and verbally abused you. Your brain treats both as threats and reacts accordingly, preparing to defend you or flee. You can learn to relate to yourself from a compassionate perspective instead. This will utilize your soothing system and help calm your threat system. You know, our lives are full of stressors; learning to relate to ourselves kindly is a way to remove one big source of stress and anxiety from your life. You are with yourself 24/7, so no one has more of an impact on your mental and physical health and your quality of lifeU+0020than you do.
If you have been considering the idea of therapy but aren’t sure, I invite you to go ahead and schedule the free 45-minute consultation I offer. I know what a big decision it is and I want the people I work with to feel confident that I’m the right person for them before we get started. Call or text me at (816) 226-4678.