A useful way of describing our emotional life can be found in Paul Gilbert’s “The compassionate mind” which I have summarised below and in the next section:
We have three main emotional systems:
1) Threat and self-protection system (many people know this as the fight/flight/freeze system).
The idea behind this system is to pick up on threats quickly and then give us bursts of feelings such as anxiety, anger or disgust. These feelings ripple through our bodies, alerting us and urging us to take action against the threat — to self-protect.
The effect of the system is to activate us to fight, run, make us freeze or stop doing things. It also comes into play if there are threats to the people we love and care about. Although it is a source of painful and difficult feelings, it evolved as a protection system. The brain is wired to give more priority to dealing with threats than to pleasurable things. The stress hormone cortisol also plays a major role in how sensitive we are to threats and how we experience them, as well as to our general sense of anxiety.
An example of an overactive threat system might occur for some people in social situations like parties or work functions (social anxiety), where their mind tells them they have to be interesting and come across as capable at all times. This makes sense as it is important to all of us to be accepted and to belong, and that’s why this system kicks into gear when we think we are not measuring up, and are at risk of being ostracised.
2) The “wanting” system. The function of this system is to give us positive feelings that motivate us to seek out things that we (and those we love and care about) need to survive and prosper. We are motivated by and find pleasure in seeking out nice things (e.g. food, sex, comforts, friendships, status, recognition). If we win a competition, pass an exam or go out with a desired person, we will experience feelings of excitement and pleasure.
When balanced with the other two systems, this one guides us towards important life goals. Imagine what life would be like without it: you’d have no motivation, energy or desires, indeed, in depression people can lose the feeling is that this system provides.
If this system is overstimulated, it can drive us to wanting more and more and to frustration and disappointment. People often come to therapy when they have achieved everything they thought would make them happy, but it hasn’t produced long lasting happiness because they still want more.
A substance in the brain called dopamine is important for our drives. Lots of things can produce a flush of dopamine — falling in love, passing an exam, winning something you want.
3) The soothing and contentment system (the ‘Ahhhh’ feeling you get when you hug a friend or lover).
This system enables us to bring soothing and peace to ourselves, which helps to restore our balance. When people aren’t defending themselves against threats and problems and don’t need to achieve or do anything because they have enough of everything, they can be content. Contentment means being happy with the way things are and feeling safe, not striving or wanting. It is an inner peacefulness that’s quite a different positive feeling from the hyped up excitement of striving and succeeding. It is also different from feeling is that is often associated with boredom or a kind of emptiness. When people practice meditation and slowing down, the feelings they report are an inner calm and a connectedness to others.
In order for us to have meaningful lives, it is important that we are taking care of and listening to all three emotional systems.
Here are the key points that come from understanding our emotional landscape. While most people come to therapy to try and get rid of uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, this approach says that every emotion has a message for us:
A) “Negative” emotions such as anger, anxiety, disgust and sadness are a normal part of our emotional repertoire
B) Negative emotions evolved to help us detecting cope with threats, but because the society we live in is obsessed with happiness, we sometimes feel that if we experience them to any degree, there’s something wrong with us.
C) We become stressed and distressed when our “wanting” system and threat/self protection systems get out of balance with the soothing/contentment one. Modern societies are over-stimulating to both our threat system and our wanting system. However happiness does not lie in over-stimulating these systems, but in balancing our emotions and desires, recognising the ups and downs of life and learning how to develop the soothing system.
D) The soothing system gives rise to feelings of peacefulness and helps us to regulate the threat-based emotions of anxiety, anger, disgust and depression and the excessive “wanting” we sometimes feel. This soothing system responds to kindness and self-compassion so learning to focus on kindness to self and others can help stimulate it.