The Threat, Drive and Soothe systems

Published Categorized as emotional literacy, soothing

I have mentioned the research of Paul Gilbert before about how he links emotions to survival by categorising them into the emotions that deal with: threat of danger, those that drive us to seek things out, and those that could be called the ‘rest and digest’ emotions that are about soothing ourselves to a place of calm and low energy activity. It’s easy to see how they supported our survival in hunter gatherer times:

Threat: This system is about getting us quickly away from danger. Emotions like fear, anger, disgust, surprise and anxiety help us to respond quickly to get ourselves to safety. Unfortunately, it’s not an overly fine-tuned system and it can be triggered erroneously as it employs a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. If you mistake something like a rope on the ground as a snake, your threat system is not going to hang about to check that rope out, it’s going to trigger a speedy response. However, if the rope did turn out to be a snake, you survived! This system overrides the other two as clearly its response is most directly linked to survival.

Drive: These emotions push you to seek out experiences (connecting positively with others) and materials (like food) that are essential for survival. They include things like excitement, happiness and anticipation. For example, these emotions would push the hunter-gatherer to move their tribe when food became scarce and they would give the motivation to find a mate to reproduce with. In a world where happiness, competition, pleasure, success are valued, this system can be ramped up to overdrive and we sometimes go pleasure seeking to the point of addiction.

Soothe The soothe system evolved because any organism needs to conserve energy (and being perpetually in either of the other two states does not mean we’re in a state of true rest). It also exists to calm the nervous system and reset. Unfortunately, it can be the system in our lives that we can struggle to access, either because we equate rest to laziness, our early experiences left us somewhat trapped in a place of threat or we have become addicted to something like scrolling on our phones when we could be resting. It can be a state that is dismissed as ‘useless’ and yet it is crucial for our wellbeing.

(As an aside, when I was a child, I used to always wonder why my grandparents had a need to declare that they were not asleep and they were ‘just resting their eyes’. I think this is the result of guilt about resting!)

Our emotion management is linked to how well we can balance these systems. If our lives mean we experience threat much of the time (which can be a result of psychological, physical and sociological circumstance), we’re less likely to access the calm of the soothing system. Also, if we’re perpetually seeking pleasure, we’re also less likely to access the ‘downtime’ of the soothing state.

This has key implications to how we approach our children’s distress. If when a child is having a tantrum, they receive a response that triggers their threat system further, they are unlikely to be able to access the soothing system. However, if a distressed child is received with ‘tuned-in’ warmth and concern, this will help them access the system and help them calm. In the long run, this creates a child who can self-soothe.

When I work with parents/carers and teachers, I ask them to explore what is going on for them when a child escalates. As few of our tantrums as a child were met with acceptance and calm, we can sometimes find that our response to a child’s distress is the opposite of soothing (embarrassment, insistence, stress, fear, irritation or anger). In making this response more conscious and in understanding fully what we are trying to do, we can start to implement a better and more consistent response to a child’s distress. If you can help them access their soothing system, they will in the long term become a child who can manage their uncomfortable emotions far more effectively.