Balancing Your Emotional Regulation Systems

Written by Melissa Bell 
on 24 Apr, 2020

Finding Your Balance

According to Dr Paul Gilbert human emotions and our ability to regulate them effectively is influenced by the three different systems pictured above.

While each system’s role is unique, they are designed to counter-balance the functions within the two remaining systems.

This model can explain how distressing circumstances can affect your brain. It can be used to consider practical strategies that support a gradual return to equilibrium (or as close to it as possible!) as well as strategies that may be less helpful.

To feel emotionally balanced, the three systems need to operate simultaneously. For this to occur, we first need to understand the systems, their functions and to effectively assess their current operating state. Then we can identify and engage in practical strategies that activate and/or calm systems and bring about balance.

Our threat system is designed to keep us alive. It does this by releasing hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that alert us to threat and motivate us to take actions. This is very helpful when the situation is genuine and requires us to fight for our lives. However, when we are remembering or ruminating about ‘real or imagined disasters’ the system still responds as if this event is happening – right her and right now – and the release of these hormones drains our mental and physical energy.

The drive system motivates us to take action to get the things we need (or want). Nowadays, this drives people to seek more, more, more – money, social status or career, and stuff! When we accomplish what we set out to do, our brain secretes dopamine and this feels great. When used to get things that are genuinely important, then it can be a powerful motivator. However, it can also encourage obsessive or avoidant behaviours and can encourage action towards goals that are causing more harm than good.

Our soothing system exists to drive behaviours that encourage feelings of calm, safety, peace and contentment. When operating at this level, the brain secretes oxytocin, endorphins and opiates. This allows us to self-soothe and to provide care and compassion to others. When activated, this system can counter-balance the potential toxic effect of the other two systems. This system is often the most under-utilised and misunderstood system. However, used simultaneously with the other two systems it has the power to build resilience and feelings of compassion toward others. When under-engaged, it can lead to the opposite and create feelings of shame, anger, self-criticism and defensiveness.

During periods of life, you may notice, that one of your brain’s systems is more activated that the others. Drawing attention to this is important. Now you can take deliberate steps aimed at bringing the other system’s back online.

Strategies that target each system include:

Threat:

  • Develop your awareness of your personal stressors and how these came to exist and alternative, more helpful reactions.
  • Access safe and non-judgemental people to discuss and reflect on your reactions. This may be a family member, friend or a professional.
  • Take time to regularly and honestly reflect on the way you reacted during situations. Reflecting on past actions helps us to recognise how we could do things differently in the future.
  • Determine how helpful your reaction was during the situation. Evaluate whether your reaction achieved what you hoped it would.
  • Reflect on how you feel following your reaction. Journaling can be a useful tool.
  • Consider alternative reactions that could be taken and how they may leave you feeling.
  • Plan and rehearse how you will react next time you encounter this stressor.
  • Notice when you react in a more effective manner, take time to acknowledge and celebrate it.

Drive:

  • Recognise that all emotions are important because emotions make things matter. They organise the mind and influence behaviour.
  • Develop knowledge of your personal motives (i.e., your reason for doing something) and values (what’s important to you).
  • Pleasant emotions are linked to achieving, and doing and acquiring things that you deem important. Take time to identify what is really important to you at the moment. Consider the actions you can take that lead you toward these important things.
  • Take time to reflect on and praise the actions you’ve taken that bring you closer to your goals and values.

Soothing:

  • Participate in activities that create a sense of calm and peace, such as listening to gentle music, breathing activities, gentle movements such as walking, swimming, mindfulness, yoga, meditation or stretching.
  • Focus your attention on things that have been helpful or brought pleasant feelings throughout the day. Pay attention to how the pleasant feelings exist in your mind and your body.
  • Practise being compassionate to yourself and others. Think about what you might say to others to help them be more accepting and non-judgemental of themselves. Then apply these same thoughts in your own life.

About the Author

Principal Psychologist

Melissa is a registered general psychologist and teacher with over 20-years’ experience in the field of wellbeing, mental health and education. Melissa currently works in private practice, offering short and long-term therapy for adolescents and adults. She works with a wide range of presenting issues, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, trauma, work-place stress and relationship issues.