Understanding key emotions, the three systems model.

This model is a practical and useful way of reflecting how different emotions can be triggered and what we can do about them, it is a foundational part of the psycho-education that we use in CFT and CMT.

So, when looking at these different systems it’s usually best to start with (what tends to be) our biggest one…threat (bottom circle in red)! So, we all know that there are certain situations that tend to make use feel threatened, it’s pretty standard to experience this and it is linked to the very well know mechanism called the ‘fight or flight response’. The main emotions associated with this are anger and anxiety (the big ones) and if you think about it, in real-life dangerous scenarios this can be a literal life-saver. For example, if another tribe (back in the day when we were living in actual ones, or if you think modern day ones like your footy team) or some dodgy lads who’ve had too many drinks attacks you, then fighting them off or getting the hell out of there is important to stay safe.However, as you know, life experiences, patterns of thinking and many other factors can cause this system to become overstimulated and this results in some significant difficulties. This system is linked to stress hormone cortisol and too much of this can lead to a range of issues, from fatigue to depression. When working with people, beginning to explore how this system works in their own life is useful starting point. For example, when threatened, do you tend to respond more with anger or anxiety? (Some people who think they are proper “tough” might deny having anxiety but you can usually get them to reflect with a bit of encouragement). Then, thinking about some of the following reflective questions can be a start: -

- What are the scenarios and people that trigger your anxiety and anger (speaking in front of loads of people, boss is a bullying a**hole, etc)?

- How do you physically react when these emotions come online (think heart-rate, breathing, sweaty palms or clench fists)?

- What are you wanting to do when these emotions are triggered (get the hell away or beat the daylights out of the person who annoyed you)?

- What helps you to deal with them (down-time, ranting to a loved one, going for a walk, meditation etc)?

Once we’ve explored a bit about the threat system and identify some of the classic individual patterns, we tend to move on to looking at drive (top-left blue circle). This is the system that comes online when we are feeling focused/in the zone/completing jobs and tasks. Exploring this one can help to get a picture of what makes people tick, what they’re passionate about and what makes them excited. For young people it may be certain school subjects/sports and for adults it may be a certain aspect of their job or downtime leisure activity. It goes without saying that this can be a great system that helps us to achieve our basic needs (food, shelter etc) as well as meaningful goals in life so it can be lovely, at times, to reflect on the drive system using similar questions as above (think triggers, physiological response, behaviours etc).

However, as with most things in life there are positive and negative aspects to this. Sometimes our threat system can feed into our drive (‘threat-based drive’) and then produce a relentless sense of being “on” all the time, barely being able to switch off and having a sense of needing to do too much. A classic example of this is how people equate their drive with the need to please everyone else, to prove themselves all the time or to always be number one in everything. This can become evident in different spheres of life from obsessions with work, the gym, social media (“sh*t that post didn’t get enough likes” etc). The dopamine hit that comes from the drive experiences can be great fun but can also result in quite obsessive needs to always be “on”. Again, it is interesting to reflect on this.

So, then we come to our third and final system-soothing (top right-green circle). So, when we talk with people about experiences and people that help them to feel genuinely soothed/calm/contented some can really struggle. However, the common themes that tend to come through are experiences of being in beautiful natural settings (beaches, countryside, mountains) and having experiences with people we feel genuinely close to, like friends and family who we can fully be ourselves with. I know for me this is linked to being in the ocean (although threat and drive can come up there too) but also activities like going for a long walk with my wife, chilling with my daughter in the garden or drinking shed-loads of tea catching up with mates.

This system is important as frequently in our day to day lives, we struggle to find time to have some of these experiences. However, having them can also help to balance threat and drive (the sympathetic nervous system) and produce different hormones like oxytocin that help us feel good and improve wellbeing. Moreover, it can help to bring back online your pre-frontal cortex (commonly known as the thinking brain) that is sometimes inhibited by threat/drive. This can help you gain a greater perspective on things. In CFT and CMT we also introduce practices that can help people to stimulate this system such as soothing rhythm breathing, imagery of personal/meaningful places and compassionate imagery. Current research (for example a CMT project in Portugal with students led by the very talented Marcela Matos and colleagues) is also suggesting that it’s not about huge, long practices (although they can be great). Sometimes, it’s the ‘little and often approach’ which can help to create significant change. Although doing this is not some quick fix, magic-formula for solving all of life’s problems, when people do begin to engage with these practices and start to feel differently it can be an empowering experience.

Mini-practice/suggestion: Sketch out the three systems as circles on a piece of paper, drawing them in relation to how big they are in your life (ie, if threat is biggest it will take up most of the page). Alternatively, talk them through with a person you like. Reflecting on them in your life, would making more time for soothing (or other ones) be helpful? If so, what could you do to embrace this more? Even if just a few minutes a day. Would learning mindful/CMT strategies be useful?

Further reading:

Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges. London: Constable-Robinson.

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy. Hove: Routledge.

Irons, C & Beaumont, E., (2017) The Compassionate Mind Workbook: A step-by-step guide to developing your compassionate self. London: Robinson.

#Wellbeing #mentalhealth #Compassionfocusedtherapy #Compassionatemindtraining #CFT #CMT #threesystemsmodel #mindfulness