When I first learned about the 3 emotion systems, I wished I’d know about it earlier. Having experienced several years of high stress and anxiety, I could see how this knowledge might have helped me navigate such a difficult period. Here’s a brief introduction to what these systems are, and why they are key to balancing stress.
In his book The Compassionate Mind, psychologist Paul Gilbert outlines these systems, which I’ll describe here as:
When something makes us feel threatened, typical feelings are fear/anxiety, or defensive feelings like anger and resentment. The stress hormone cortisol is very much associated with this system. In the striving zone, we’re focussed on trying to achieve things. When we get what we want, it feels good. But constant striving is exhausting and can lead to burnout. The contentment zone is the one we were designed to return to when the tiger that was lurking has gone away. This is when we feel calm and at peace, and we’re just Being, not trying to achieve anything. Affiliation is also an important aspect of this system: connecting with others helps us to feel safe and soothed. We need a bit of each of these systems to function well and stay alive, but often they become out of balance.
So, taking an overview of these three zones – where do you spend the most time currently? When I looked back on my infertility struggles, I could see clearly that I constantly bounced between Threat and Striving. Even worse, I had no control over what I wanted to achieve, which amplified the negative effects of both those zones. During that time, it was safe to say that I pretty much NEVER spent any time in the Contentment zone. I hardly even knew that such a state existed. All I felt was scared, frustrated and isolated.
The good news is that even when we’re experiencing stress, there are ways to bring ourselves into the Contentment zone a bit more. And spending more time there can rebalance the depleting effects of the other two zones. Practising meditation regularly is one way to do this. This is partly because it moves us away from the Doing mode that is associated with striving, and into the Being mode which is more characteristic of contentment. When we practice mindfulness meditation, we’re not trying to achieve anything or get anywhere. We’re just Being With our experience. Practised over time, regular meditation can also help us ‘dial down’ the threat system, so that we feel more calm generally.
The other aspect of mindfulness that helps us plug into the contentment system is connecting with others. When we engage in Connection meditations, we can reduce feelings of isolation by focussing on our shared humanity: just like us, everyone wants to be happy, and wants to avoid suffering. Taking it further, mindfulness often offers an environment that enables us to connect with others in a very human way. Over time, I’ve come into contact with lots of people who’ve turned to mindfulness to help with their own suffering. Even during difficult times, it has helped me to feel part of that human community, among others who also suffer but for different reasons.
If you want to read more about the emotion systems, I would highly recommend the book Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden.