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There are three primary emotional regulation systems: the threat system, the drive system, and the care system. Each system is linked to different motivations, emotions, behaviours, brain structure, and chemistry. (Gilbert, 2009).
According to Gilbert, a healthy emotional regulation system involves a balanced interplay between these three systems. However, imbalances between these systems can lead to difficulties in managing distress and can contribute to conditions such as anxiety, depression,
The threat system’s primitive function is to detect and protect humans from danger. When our bodies identify a perceived or actual threat, our brain’s threat center, the amygdala, becomes activated, leading to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, priming our bodies for fight-or-flight responses.(6)
Evolutionary threats to our health were physical, possibly life-threatening. Surviving meant building relationships in community, staying part of a larger group for protection and resources. So ingrained is the need for community, social isolation actually drives the same centers in our brain as does chronic pain. To be isolated is painful.
Today, we experience fewer physical threats to our lives, and the Threat System, geared towards being in community, is now activated under any perceived threat of being: cast out, othered, made to feel inadequate, shamed or just unable to keep up. These are daily drivers for our threat system.
When this system is activated you may feel anxious, angry, or scared. Everyone experiences times of feeling inadequate, isolated, or shame. The time when you have felt this way (Choose a mild one, a 3 out of 10 not the 10 out of 10 one that comes to mind first). How do you feel in those moments when your threat system is activated?
The drive system is geared towards “getting stuff done”: conquering goals and achieving tasks. It can motivate us to work towards what we need, such as earning money or doing things that make us happy. And it rewards us for those achievements.
The drive system is also the go to system when our threat system is activated. It is the problem solver that kicks into gear, pushing us to achieve more, succeed more, to ease feelings of inadequacy, shame – to “get us back in with the group”… Think striving… This response can of course be very adaptive when in balance, but if our only resource for supporting ourselves against difficult emotions by pushing through, can take a toll on our well-being.
The Drive System in our brains is located in the Nucleus Accumbens. It produces dopamine, our brain's reward chemical, to motivate people to achieve their goals through problem-solving and action. .4,7 This system provides us with a sense of success and reward; And allows us, at least temporarily escaping perceived or actual failures.
The Soothing system is centered on giving and receiving love. It encourages us to adopt a more gentle and caring approach when connecting with self and others.
When we are born, unlike other animals, we are unable to fend for ourselves and require protection and soothing. Consider common instincts of soothing babies, both physical touch and reassuring speech or sounds are designed to promote bonding and soothing.
This system modifies the activity of our threat and drive systems to better manage our emotions. Activation of the care system triggers the release of oxytocin and opioids from the prefrontal cortex, promoting feelings of safety and calmness. (6, p31)
Self-compassion can be viewed as “treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time—even if your friend blew it or is feeling inadequate, or is just facing a tough life challenge.” (6, p10)
Self-compassion helps activate the nurturing care system and softens the interplay between the threat and drive systems. Those who are more self-compassionate are better able to cope and combat stress as they treat themselves with kindness, warmth, and concern.2
For more information about activating your Soothing System see this page.
And for more information about these three regulating systems, Mindfulness & Clinical Psychology Solutions provides an excellent and more detailed review: Your Brain’s 3 Emotion Regulations Systems.