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How I’ve learnt to spend more time in my ‘soothing’ system

Do you spend time in your ‘soothing’ system? Or know what that is? And are you aware of how understanding the ‘three systems’ model might help your psychological well-being? Let me explain how these ideas have helped me.


In my quest to look after my mental health ever since I suffered two serious depressive episodes in my thirties, I am always on the hunt for fresh psychological approaches to manage my own tendency to anxiety and low mood.

Recently I came across the ‘three systems’ model developed by psychologist and professor at the University of Derby, Dr Paul Gilbert. I had vaguely heard a bit about the Prof’s work. He’s a big cheese in the mental health world, who has contributed to the government's National Institute for Health Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for depression and has published over 100 academic papers. But hitherto I hadn’t properly investigated one of his main findings: the idea we switch between three systems to manage our emotions - the threat, drive and soothing systems. Nor I had I applied his ideas to myself.


Dr Gilbert argues that the threat system involves external and internal threats. External threats might be someone jostling you on public transport, or someone shouting at you, but also encompass internal threats such as looming deadlines for a piece of writing in my case, or the prospect of an event at which I am speaking, or a piece of feedback from an editor or a publisher. Internal threats are more about the negative ways we talk to ourselves – ‘I’m such a loser!’ ‘I always get things wrong!’. When we are threatened, we typically then go into the ‘fight, flight, freeze or submit’ response and produce lots of adrenaline and cortisol.


The drive system, meanwhile, is about pursuing and achieving stuff. It’s accompanied by the pleasurable brain chemical dopamine. We experience a flood of dopamine whenever we get something done or achieve success. So for me, that might be having an article accepted for publication, or even something more everyday like cleaning out the fridge or sweeping the garden.   

Finally, the soothing system is when we feel calm, safe and relaxed. There are no threats to defend against or goals that must be pursued. This system produces feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins.  


All systems are valid and important, and ideally, we would circle easily between all three. But many of us end up ping-ponging between the threat and drive systems, and not spending enough time in the soothing one. 

This is because we can get stuck in our threat system, for two main reasons. The first is that evolution has designed us like this: the threat system saves us from being eaten by a lion. The second reason is that negative information captures our attention, thinking, and memory more powerfully than positive information (this is referred to by researchers as a ‘negativity bias’). For instance, we feel the sting of being reprimanded more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise. I always remember the articles that were rejected, not the ones that were published.


Given how unpleasant it is to feel threatened, the obvious answer is to escape by switching to the drive system for a pleasant whoosh of dopamine. We oscillate between the torment of threat, and the temporary relief provided by the drive system.  In the short term, this can be rewarding. After all, we are pain-averse, pleasure-seeking creatures.


However, this cycle can become exhausting in the long term because it leaves no space for failure – which is an inevitable part of the relentless pursuit of achievement. Not all our endeavours will work. It’s impossible for all my articles to be accepted. Do more, be more, have more – these ambitions are all very well, until the moment you fail - and trigger the threat system again. Many of us are, therefore, in a vicious cycle with no space for peace and contentment with what ‘is’. 


What I’ve come to realise is that this is a pattern I recognise in myself, especially because we expect ourselves to achieve so many goals in an achievement-driven world – publish more articles! Write more books! In other words, we want to busy in our drive systems, especially if, like me, you went to a competitive London girls’ school (St Paul’s Girls’ School in West London); and then Oxford University.  


The answer for me has been to understand that switching between the two systems is unhelpful, even though temporarily I might be distracted and get a hit of dopamine. Instead, I need to become better at accessing my soothing systems if I feel threatened.


The more I am able to support, nurture and soothe myself, the more I am capable of being there for myself if I fail (and I will eventually fail or make mistakes, because nobody is perfect 100% of the time). This means I will be able to handle disappointment without spiralling into self-criticism, and avoid the dreaded threat/drive ping pong.


This model has made complete sense to me because that's just how I often feel.  I'm as guilty as the next person of falling into a cycle of threat/drive, which I like to think of as the psychological equivalent of the economy's boom and bust. But I've developed some soothing strategies.


Many studies have found that slow, rhythmic breathing can make us feel calmer and less stressed, as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is linked to the soothing system. 


A second approach I now use is to become more attuned to the presence of soothing emotions my own life. The more I’ve become aware of such feelings, the easier I’ve found it to engage with them. What are the activities or events which prompt me to feel calm and at peace? Once I know what kinds of things prompt soothing feelings, I can deliberately start stimulating them.


I might indulge in a smell that leaves me feeling comforted and calmed. As I inhale, I ask myself to savour the scent and notice the way my body feels as I do this. Lavender oil works for me; so too does hugging our dog Sammy for my favourite eau de chien.  Sometimes it’s as simple as wrapping myself in a thick duvet and feeling its warmth and the sensations of being held. Or listening to some music that makes me feel at ease – I love musicals including Matilda or Guys and Dolls. Experimenting with some gentle touch, like a hand massage, helps me too; or going for a walk anywhere green.


Each of you will have your own ways of spending time in your soothing system. And please let me know ideas which have helped you! It’s time to spread the word.



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