Runaway Brain: Making Sense of My Emotions

By: Dr. Jennie Fincher, PH.D., LPC-S

The brain is an amazing and complicated organ. We absolutely need it live and more importantly, we need it to function well to live well. There are three main types of emotion regulation systems: threat system, drive system, and soothing system. All mental health problems are related to an overuse of the threat and drive systems. We can hold onto the pain of the past, we can get triggered by unwanted anxieties about the future, and we can attack ourselves with our inner-critic.

Read to the end to learn ways to soothe your threat and drive systems and generate a sense of calm and resilience, so that you can be more free to choose how you respond to difficult thoughts (e.g., painful memories, negative predictions, and self-criticism), challenging emotions (such as fear, anger, pain, sadness, and loneliness) or any other situation that you may find personally challenging.

Threat System

The threat system operates on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle, aimed at keeping us alive by scanning for and identifying threats. It is a very powerful system. It can activate powerful bursts of feelings that alert us to threats and this can motivate us to take action. It does this by creating feelings of anxiety or fear in response to potentially threatening stimuli. The behavioral ramifications include fight-flight response, submission, or self-attacking and self-criticism. The threat system involves stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Research shows that negative information captures our attention much more powerfully than positive information, this is called a negativity bias. Because it is one of the brain’s most powerful systems, it is easy for this system to take up more than its fair share of mental and physical energy. Due to our brain’s ability to imagine and ruminate, it is possible to keep this system running even in the absence of any actual external threat.

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Drive System

The drive system is a motivational system that also has roots in our evolution. It drives us toward the things we want or need in order to succeed. It alerts us to opportunities for pursuing goals and securing resources and helps us focus on these pursuits. The drive system can be powerfully motivating and can narrow our focus on whatever we are pursuing, to the detriment of ourselves and others. This drive system is highly influenced by the neurochemical, dopamine. Dopamine serves to acts as our built-in reward system. We experience a flood of dopamine whenever we achieve something that we set out to achieve. When in balance with the other two systems, the drive system can help keep us motivated to pursue important life goals. However, it can also lead to addictive and compulsive behavior (e.g., the high associated with illicit drug use or compulsive behaviors to avoid anxiety). The drive system, when unbalanced, can lead people to pursue achievement in unrelenting ways, leading to stress, perfectionism, and depression.

System Imbalance

When the threat and drive systems are in overdrive, they can lead to mental health problems. For example, the threat system can be overused to rely on the inner critic to motivate to take action, but instead, it can inadvertently increase distress which makes failure more likely. This can lead to agitation, depression, and self-loathing.

Similarly, anxiety also can result from an imbalance in the drive and threat systems. The use of the drive system to avoid the unpleasant experience of anxiety may lead to short-term relief, but ultimately creates an increase in anxiety. Since avoidance cannot be maintained, the threat continues to ruminate in the mind, which results in triggering the threat system…again and again.

The imbalance of the threat and drive systems can really make us feel stuck if it is not regulated with the third system, the soothing system.

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Soothing System

Unlike the threat and drive systems that activate us, the soothing system is associated with tranquil states, feelings of safety, contentment, and peace. This system utilizes neurochemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins. Similar to the other two systems discussed, we enter this world hard-wired with the soothing system. It is connected to experiences of affection, care-giving/receiving, acceptance, support, and affiliation. Research suggests that the above-mentioned behaviors interfere with the negative effects of the threat and drive systems. Unfortunately, the soothing system can be affected by developmental history, especially histories that include painful interpersonal or emotional experiences (e.g., childhood trauma, rejection, lack of parental support). Fortunately, utilizing the soothing system more effectively can be a learned skill.

Regulating ourselves plays an instrumental role in promoting a sense of wellbeing throughout our life. Self-regulation can be defined as managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed actions. Self-regulation becomes critical particularly during adolescents and young adulthood. Research has shown that major changes occur during early and mid-adolescence (i.e., 11-15 years). During this period of time, the systems that seek reward and process emotions are more developed than systems involved in decision-making and future planning. This means that self-regulation is developmentally challenging during this age range. Self-regulation skills that can be developed during adolescence include persisting on long-term projects, problem-solving to achieve goals, self-monitoring, making decisions with compassion for others, managing frustration, and seeking help when stress is unmanageable.

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How to develop self-regulation

Self-regulation develops and is learned through interaction with caregivers and the environment over the lifespan. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral regulation skills can be learned. Effective interventions can strengthen and improve skills. Caregivers (including parents, teachers, and mentors) can teach self-regulation skills thought modeling, providing opportunities to practice skills, and reinforcing skill development. This can include coaching them on how, why, and when to use the regulation skills in complex situations.  Providing a warm responsive relationship where youth feel safe to make mistakes and learn to help them to navigate more challenging situations on their own. Structuring the environment to make self-regulation more manageable is also very helpful. This can involve limiting opportunities for risk-taking behaviors and allowing natural consequences for poor decisions. This supportive process between adults and youth is what is called co-regulation. Through warm and responsive interactions, co-regulation provides assistance and support for optimal self-regulation.

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Mind-body interventions can also assist in developing self-regulation. These interventions can include yoga, meditation, and martial arts. Mindfulness is also a technique that intentionally focuses attention on one’s emotions and thoughts in the present moment. Mindfulness utilizes acceptance of thoughts and feelings without judgment.

No matter what the avenue of self-regulation, the work toward balancing our systems is worth it.

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