Emotions. They can get the best of us, sometimes triggering primitive, short-sighted and impulsive actions. Yet, unlike animals, humans have the ability to express and choose their emotions, as well as anticipate how other people will respond. Our emotional nature can be confusing and overwhelming with many conflicting emotions swirling simultaneously; therefore, emotional regulation is key.
When regulated, emotions provide us important information. If we approach them with a curious and accepting attitude, they can be used to avert danger, solve problems, and bring us comfort. Understanding our emotions can help us balance our feelings and use them productively.
What Are Emotion Regulation Systems?
Just like a computer, humans have an operating system to help them deal with the complexity, too. Emotion regulation systems are conscious and unconscious strategies that affect our emotions, moods and feelings to help us process stimulus and experience. There are three different systems at play: Threat, Drive and Soothing.
- The Threat System gives us the ability to detect and respond to danger.
- The Drive System is centered around doing and acquiring.
- The Soothing System helps us cultivate an inner calmness and a sense of well-being.
All three systems are needed, but it’s important that they are balanced; if one system dominates, our emotions can get off-kilter. Awareness is the first step in fine-tuning our own individual systems.
How Do These Systems Work?
The Threat System is our default state. Originally designed to protect us from predators, this system initiates our fight/flight/freeze responses which are crucial to our survival. As we have evolved, this system kicks in even when the situation is not life-threatening; it’s our immediate instinct to stay safe. Our minds need to quickly sort different types of threats and can activate the fight or flight reaction over things as simple as a tense conversation, depending on the person. When triggered, the conscious mind is hijacked causing us think irrationally.
SYSTEM #1: Threat
Think of it this way, if you’re driving in heavy traffic and someone cuts you off jeopardizing your safety, in short order, you are likely to experience fear and anxiety, possibly followed by anger. The action was a very real threat to your safety. Conversely, something such as a disagreement with your spouse, which is generally not life threatening, can stir up similar feelings.
SYSTEM #2: Drive
The Drive System pushes us to garner things such as food, shelter, safety and sexual partners. In today’s world, this system stretches beyond basic human needs to include desires such as money, material possessions, and entertainment. When we achieve or acquire these things, our brain rewards us by releasing the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which reinforces the desire. In Western cultures, we can have an over-reliance on achievement and acquiring; sometimes unconsciously avoiding feelings of rejection and inferiority. When this happens, our drive leads us to set unrealistic goals and if we can’t reach them, it makes us vulnerable to emotions such as depression and anxiety.
SYSTEM #3: Soothing
When the Soothing System is activated, the Threat and Drive Systems are deactivated. When the soothing system is operating effectively, endorphins are produced in the brain creating a feeling of calm, safety and peacefulness. It’s especially important for infants to have a strong, dependable bond and relationship with the parent or primary caregiver. A secure attachment creates a sense of security that sets the foundation for confidence, which in turn makes it easier to calm oneself as the child grows older into adulthood. Without a strong Soothing System, it’s hard to self-regulate negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. Being able to self-soothe helps us feel safe and content. Soothing is the ability to accept our emotions, look at them objectively, self-calm, and then let them pass, versus reacting to a perceived threat.
How to Identify When Each System is Acting
The Threat System is easiest to identify; you may experience a racing heart, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, dizziness, upset stomach, muscle tension, and tearfulness. The physical sensations are overwhelming.
Recognizing when your Drive System is in overdrive is trickier since the dopamine it produces creates feelings of pleasure and reinforcement that we thrive on. Often, the clues of this system are overactive and come from those you love. At one point when I was immersed in starting a new business, my 4-year-old son said to me, “Mommy, take your hands off the computer.” Talk about a wake-up call!
It may seem counterintuitive, but while the Soothing System is the most pleasurable of the three, it is also the easiest to ignore. The best way to identify this state is when you are doing something you enjoy and provides feelings of peace and happiness. A mentor once said to me, “When you wake up and take that first sip of coffee, pay attention to how good it tastes.” Since then, not a day has gone by that I don’t appreciate that first taste of warm coffee.
Balancing the Emotional Systems
So where do you start? There is no single way to bring your emotions into balance. With all three systems, mindfulness is key to making change, and different techniques will be more effective at different times. The most important thing is to become keenly aware of your feelings. Self-awareness gives you the power to begin to make small shifts in your emotions as they arise.
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When the Threat System kicks in, it’s important to interrupt the physical response.
- Breathe deeply and pay attention to your breath.
- Plant your feet firmly on the floor to take your mind off of the physical feelings of panic.
- Standing and walking activates the thinking part of our brain helping us to think rationally instead of emotionally.
When the Drive System is dominating, stop and re-evaluate.
- Spend time doing something you find calming.
- Revisit your goals and make sure they are aligned with your priorities.
- Build time into your schedule to do things you find enjoyable.
When the Soothing System is in gear, nurture it!
- Take notice when you are feeling calm and peaceful and allow yourself to enjoy it fully.
- Practice using warm, compassionate language toward yourself and others.
- Be present in the moment. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the past or the future.
As with any new skill, emotional self-regulation and the balancing the emotion regulation systems is something that requires practice. Like a muscle, it must be flexed in order to become strong.
Be consistent in your efforts and gentle with your expectations. Before long, you’ll be able to move through your emotions with grace and wonder instead of fear and anxiety.
Related reading: "What Is Emotional Intelligence?"
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