Today, we’re diving into an incredible exploration of our emotions, with a focus on the three core systems—threat, drive, and soothing—that shape our emotional landscape. Drawing from the insightful model developed by Paul Gilbert, we will learn about these three systems and teach you how to master them to live a more balanced, stress-free life. Understand how self-compassion, connection, and physical activities can bring us back to our soothing system, leading to a sense of balance. Find out how to turn down the fight or flight response using personalized soothing activities, ultimately aiming for a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.
Get ready to transform your understanding of your emotions, conquer stress, and achieve balance as we unlock the soothing system, your key to mastering stress and emotions.
What you will learn on this episode:
– Learn about Paul Gilbert’s model of emotional regulation and the three core systems: threat, drive, and soothing.
– Understand how the threat system operates as a built-in alarm that triggers fear, anxiety, and worry, and how it can lead to excessive stress.
– Gain insights on how to differentiate between daily stress and actual danger.
– Explore the drive system that motivates us and rewards us with feel-good chemicals, and how it can sometimes lead us to harmful paths.
– Discover the soothing system and its power in regulating stress and achieving emotional balance.
– Learn about the importance of self-compassion, connection, and physical activities in tapping into the soothing system.
– Understand the impact of incorporating personalized soothing activities into your daily routine for a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.
– Learn how to activate your soothing system to respond differently to stressors and achieve a sense of balance.
– Understand how to manage the three systems to regulate emotions, reduce stress, and maintain mental and physical health.
I absolutely love to hear your thoughts and get your questions.
You can email me at: Leighagermann@gmail.com
I can’t wait to hear from you!
This podcast is not intended to provide mental health treatment. Leigh Germann is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and not a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist. She does not provide diagnosis nor offer therapy through the LeighGermann.com website or in the information offered on the website. It is important that you do not disregard professional medical or mental health advice or delay seeking professional medical or mental health treatment because of any information on the LeighGermann.com website including but not limited to blogs, newsletter, videos, podcasts, e-books, programs, webinars, courses and other services. Leigh Germann and offerings on LeighGermann.com are not providing legal or financial advice, business advice, psychotherapy, supervision, religious advice, or medical advice. The information contained on this Website has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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Hi there and welcome to leadership parenting.
Today I want to talk about one of the core tools we have in our self-care pillars.
Remember those pillars are sleep, soothe, fuel and move.
Well, today we’re talking about soothe -how to soothe our bodies, soothe our minds, soothe our breathing, soothe any and all things that need our attention.
And we need this power of soothe because it operates as the balance to our threat system and to our drive system. And you’ll notice I’m talking about systems here and that’s because I’m referring to a model on how our emotional systems work to help us in our life.
Paul Gilbert is the creator of this model and he calls it the three types of emotional regulation, and I love this model because I think it’s very simple. It helps us get a picture of what goes on inside of us in a way that we can work with.
In this model, he suggests that our emotions and behaviors are influenced by three systems the threat system, the drive system and the soothing system.
So I’m going to briefly go over these 3 systems real quick-
Our threat system is like a built-in alarm system. This system triggers feelings of fear, anxiety or worry and when your threat system is activated you will feel on edge, ready to protect yourself or child from harm.
It’s that fight or flight system that keeps us safe.
But it can also be overly sensitive and lead to excessive worry or stress.
And we’ve talked about your nervous system in earlier episodes,
-how you have the fight or flight feeling that is going to cause your heart rate to rise and your blood pressure to go up and your breathing to get fast and your muscles to tense and your immune system and your digestion are going to slow down…
as you can imagine, being in this state is great for fighting off a threat that might be happening right now. This helps us stay alive in dangerous situations.
But think of all the times your threat system turns on when there’s no actual danger occurring right in the moment. This amazing threat detector is so sensitive.
It turns on when we think about something that we don’t like or imagine a scenario that hasn’t even happened yet. So, if I have to give a talk or a presentation, it doesn’t take much for my threat system to turn on, especially if I start to imagine people’s responses and maybe imagine that I forget some of my words or someone maybe wouldn’t like what I had to say. That could easily trigger my threat system.
So, my threat system turns on many times each day- if I forget to do something or maybe I feel like I let myself down or I let somebody else down.
Another word for this kind of struggle is called stress, and you know stress is everywhere. Stress is defined as a natural response to anything new, anything challenging or anything threatening.
So it’s pretty normal to have stress of some kind because we want new and challenging experiences.
I mean, my goodness, having kids is new and challenging. At each age and stage we’ve got different challenges and things to deal with. J
Just a single day can hand us a lot of stress.
So experiencing stress is part of living and there’s a lot of new research supporting the idea that we actually need stress. Think of stressing your bones and your muscles so they get stronger. Think of learning a new skill or starting a new job. You know the learning curve requires more work, more thought and stretching. This is also considered stress.
So stress is natural in many instances.
Stress itself really isn’t the problem. We have a great threat system that turns on our stress response.
It’s knowing how to turn off the threat system in our body. Because Stress that’s not dangerous also turns on your threat system, just like real, actual danger does. Only we are experiencing nn- life-threatening stress all the time- which could mean that our threat system is on all the time.
In fact, most of us get caught up in that trap of having our threat systems turned on most of the time and it often just doesn’t ever really turn off.
Have you ever been absolutely safe, maybe even tucked in bed?
Everyone is okay, and your mind starts spinning around your to-do list and maybe there are a few big things, things that maybe are a little bit threatening and that they require your attention.
But guess what else turns on that threat system or that stress response?
Just thinking about your kindergarten or riding the bus, or your 12-year-old finding someone to sit with at lunch, or thinking about your home looks compared to how you want it to look, or how someone else’s looks, or thinking of your weight or your wrinkles, or whether your friend is sad about you missing her birthday, and what retirement might look like for you in 20 years….
Our bodies really need to have some balance and not be in threat mode all the time, but our modern brain ends up triggering our threat systems to be on way more than they are off.
And I like to think of this stress response as a gauge, kind of like that old-fashioned gas gauge you would see in a car with a needle that indicates if your tank is full or empty. Well, with this gauge it measures where your nervous system is on the scale of turned on in fight or flight threat system on or turned off, and in rest and safe mode– threat system off.
You know this fight or flight feeling is supposed to rise and then resolve. It’s not supposed to go on endlessly, and I wish I could say that we’re good at letting stress come, rise and then resolve, but we just aren’t.
The problems this causes oh, my goodness, do we have time to talk about all the problems this causes? I was meeting with a client just today who’s dealing with physical symptoms that come from her threat system being turned on almost all the time.
For her- her she was dealing with adrenal fatigue because the stress is called upon her adrenal glands every day for a very long time,
and I have clients who struggle with high blood pressure, high blood sugar, low immune response, getting sick a lot, thyroid problems, cancer, irritable bowel disease, and the list goes on. These are the physical symptoms that show up in our body.
We haven’t even mentioned the anxiety and depression that come from having threat systems that don’t turn off.
So that’s a quick review of what happens inside the threat system.
We also have two other systems that are hardwired into our brains and bodies.
We have a drive system and a soothing system.
So let’s look at the drive system first.
The drive system is designed to help us seek out the things that we need in life, and the brain kind of rewards us for these things with chemicals and hormones, like dopamine, that feel good and motivate us.
You’ve probably heard of dopamine before. Anything that gives you pleasure or a sense of accomplishment, it will trigger the release of dopamine, and dopamine is why we like cookies, sex, soft, fuzzy things, getting praised, crossing things off our list, organizing the pantry, winning a game, making money or achieving a goal.
Every like or emoji in response to our social media post actually triggers a little shot of dopamine into our system.
Dopamine activates the reward pathway in the brain, leads you to do and desire these activities much more, and this can really help us achieve our goals.
But everything that is good for us also has a bit of a shadow right where it can be used in a negative way, and sometimes our drive system can have a hard time shutting off too, like when we stay up late to finish that project or push ourselves too hard at the gym, because our brain loves that shot of dopamine when we complete a task or get rewarded.
So dopamine can reward us for things that aren’t so good for us, like eating candy or junk food or scrolling social media for too long, or overspending or taking dangerous risks, or procrastinating the project.
So you can see that threat and drive can both serve us and not serve us, and this is the tricky challenge we all face in our lives
Often, threat and drive kind of work together to try to keep us safe
Threat turns on because we’re fearful and drive tries to keep us away from what we fear.
And this is great when we’re dealing with a fire in our house, but not great when we’re feeling afraid to talk to people at a party or give a presentation or we don’t want to feel painful feelings.
Drive will go into motion to protect us from those things by rewarding our avoidance of them.
And I just described anxiety right. When we’re anxious, we avoid the things that make us anxious and our brain thinks this is good.
It avoids the threat, but what it actually does is it makes our world smaller, which creates a whole other layer of threat, and anxiety will do that.
So threat and drive can kind of end up going down a dark path together, leading you to try to be safe but actually causing more problems.
So we need to balance all of this. We have a threat system and we have a drive system, and then we have one more system in this model and that’s the soothing system, or soothe as I call it.
And soothe is the partner everyone wants to have.
And I should say it this way soothe is the partner all of us desperately need to have.
The soothe system is like a comforting gear that helps you calm down, relax and feel connected and content.
When this system is activated, you feel warm, you feel safe, you feel connected.
In fact, if you go back and listen to episodes 13 and 14 on the power of connection and your nervous system, we talked in depth about how connection to ourselves, connection to others and connection to something bigger than us can deeply soothe our nervous systems.
This is the soothe system in action.
It’s part of that parasympathetic side of your nervous system, the other side of the fuel gauge, opposite of threat.
this is the time when your body gets to rest and repair from all the hard work it puts your body through when you’re in threat mode.
Think about how your heart pumps harder in stress, how your breathing is shallow and you don’t get those big abdominal belly breaths to oxygenate your system. How your immune system runs on low when you’re in stress so all of your energy goes to staying alive in this moment. But you need those immune cells to protect you long term. They need to be freed up to work at their normal capacity for you.
So when you go into soothe state, your immune system comes back online and it can fight viruses, bacteria and even cancer cells the way it’s supposed to. All of your systems get to take a breath and just be. Just do their work.
Most of us don’t spend enough time in soothe. Our needles are stuck on the threat side of our gauge, not because we’re choosing it consciously, but almost by default.
Your default response in your body is set to be threat-based. It’s just part of why we’ve survived as a species. Scanning for threat means you stay alive, but let’s be real.
Your life is filled with scanning for threat.
Think about when you make a mistake, when we feel bad about something maybe we forgot something or messed up somehow – our threat system turns on and we feel the stress.
and then drive turns on to try to whip us into shape and get rid of the threat. So we work harder or avoid things or do something or eat something to numb out.
Which actually in the long run- only ends up retriggering our threat system.
And then we ping-pong back and forth from threat to drive.
It’s an exhausting survival dance, well-meaning, but so exhausting, not useful, so automatic.
but I want you to thrive,
and thriving comes from having balanced time on the other side of the threat meter,
We can use soothe to help us. In fact, we need to use soothe to help us. It’s the most underused asset we have.
It’s our unsung hero.
The power to soothe is also built into our bodies as a longevity mechanism. It’s your superpower and that’s why I put it in the self-care pillars.
Soothe can partner with our drive system and help us deal with the painful feelings through constructive and loving ways rather than destructive and numbing ways.
Soothe is the best teammate you’ll ever have and it’s so smart to get good at soothing yourself.
If anyone ever tells you that soothing yourself is weak or soft, you need to be prepared to prove them wrong.
That means you need to convince yourself that learning to self-soothe is your best investment in your own health and happiness.
If you just take five minutes and Google the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, resting, feeding your body, yoga, play, recreation, dancing, fun connection. These are the things researchers are blowing up the journals reporting about.
The scientific articles on the effects of stress are too numerous to even count, and the solutions that are being researched are all in the world of the soothe system.
We’re finally becoming wise to the need that we need to take our health into our own hands,
So- I’ve laid out this model with three systems to help you identify what it might feel like in your body when you’re in threat mode and when you’re in drive mode and when you’re in soothe mode.
Understanding that you have these three systems can help you figure out where you are within your own nervous system, within your emotions and within your body, and the simplicity of this model makes it so much easier to map yourself.
Like, the other night, as I was getting ready for bed, I felt uneasy.
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was just this tightness in my chest and I could feel my muscles were a little tight and it was like this heaviness sitting right there on my chest and I said something to my husband like I feel like something’s wrong.
And I actually said to him “is everything really okay, like tell me, is there something wrong that I’m missing? “
Because I kind of have that feeling and I think I mentioned to you before in another episode that we kind of have called that the uh-oh feeling, and if I could use kind of more specific words, I think how I would describe it is, I feel like my threat system is on, that sympathetic nervous system of fight or flight is activated.
And for me that night it was like a low grade, like a hum in my chest, not like a major pounding, but just like this low hum in my chest. And I knew I had some worries in my head.
I had to teach a lesson the next week and that always makes me feel like I’m behind in preparation and I should be getting it ready.
And you know, there really wasn’t anything for me to do that night. It was kind of late, but it made me want to go into the kitchen and kind of stress eat something or watch something to distract me and kind of get rid of the feeling.
And I could tell that was a little bit of my drive system turning on because I felt I had to do something to make it go away,
And maybe you can be thinking a little bit about what THREAT feels like in your body and what it feels like when that drive system turns on.
And we can kind of get caught between a threat response and a threat drive response. And that’s what was happening to me that night
What I actually did was just notice that those two systems were getting activated and especially that that threat response was on at a low hum. I could feel it- slightly unsettled, a little bit of alertness, a little bit of being on edge.
I had at that moment an opportunity, a decision that I had to make?
Was I going to just let it sit there, kind of stumped by it
Maybe try to go to sleep, maybe try to do something to numb it or distract from it-
I could turn to soothe
I chose to do some slow, deep breathing. I actually got out of bed, laid on the floor and stretched out my body, breathing slower and deeper, and as I did, I was able to feel that tightness in my chest start to loosen a little.
So, it’s a little bit like noticing that you’re lying in bed and you’re hot, right, like temperature wise, you’re feeling really warm. And so you get up and you turn down the thermostat for the air conditioning in your home. That’s how I like to think about it.
I’m feeling hot, I’m feeling like I’m revved, I’m feeling like I’ve got a stress response occurring inside of me and I want to reach in manually and I want to turn down that heat and start to soothe my body a little bit.
So, before I tried to talk my way through those thoughts or even change my thoughts, I acknowledged that I was in threat mode and I just started to soothe my body. Then I was able to sort through my thoughts a little bit.
But the cool thing about using something to soothe your body is that your brain automatically starts to adjust your thinking when your body is getting calmer.
Remember, we have this two-way communication from our mind to our body, and what revs us up in our brain revs us up in our body, and what calms and soothes us in our body can also help to calm and soothe us in our thinking.
So I want you to know how to do both, learn how to work with your whole system and the work we do with our bodies is so important which is why I put soothe in the self-care pillar.
I want you to get good at checking in with yourself, listening to your body and noticing if your threat system is on and then consciously attending to it and turning it down.
What does the threat system look like for you in your body? Does it feel like a tightness sin your chest- or stomach – or head- does it give you that little uh oh feeling?
It often just feels like a problem or something uncomfortable that we want to get rid of.
It’s so easy for me, when I have a headache, to just want it to go away and most of us, you know, are pretty comfortable reaching for a pain reliever of some kind. And sometimes people reach for alcohol or food because their body hurts or feels tense and they want to just get rid of it
And our efforts to respond actually can cause us more problems If that drive system is working with the threat system to get rid of a feeling. Those are two systems that are ganging up kind of in a dark way for us.
I think we often miss our opportunity to Soothe to do something very important for ourselves, very needed for our bodies and our minds To maybe see that headache or that tummy ache or that tightness in our chest as a signal that we need something.
We need a little balance to turn down the threat system.
And if we were to draw all this out on a piece of paper, our three systems…
Threat could be really really big, a big circle.
Drive might be a little bit smaller circle,
and then Soothe would be teeny, teeny tiny,
Like where in the heck is Soothe on our paper?
I’ll do this with a client. I’ll have her map out where she is in her systems at any given moment and most of the time the threat and the drive circles are much bigger than the soothe circle, and this is not your fault.
One of the coolest things about this model is that it comes from the research in self-compassion,
and one of the biggest pieces of the model is that it isn’t our fault that our brains work this way.
We actually can just accept that human brains do these things.
We get stressed, we feel threat and we try to use drive to constantly achieve and feel better.
But we can also choose to balance these systems by consciously choosing to strengthen that soothe system.
So when I say, turn to your soothe system or strengthen your soothe system, what comes to mind for you, what’s soothing for you?
Your list is going to be unique to you and you probably already know what things you can do that help you feel a little bit comforted or a little bit safer or a little bit calmer.
We talked in episodes 19 and 20 about self-compassion.
Self-compassion is definitely a soothe activity. It comes from all those beliefs that you’re deserving of kindness and support so you can soothe with self-compassion.
And we’ve talked in depth about connection- In episodes 13, 14, and I think also in 17 and 18
We’ve spent a lot of time on connection. And that’s because connection is a soothing activity.
When you’re feeling the threat system on in your body, just noticing that starts to soothe and turn down your stress response.
When you connect with another person, your body produces oxytocin.
It’s a bonding hormone. It’s a soothing hormone, it’s a feel-good hormone.
Connection anchors us and it helps us biochemically balance out that stress and it helps us biochemically balance out the threat system.
And there are tangible physical things that can help you soothe.
Breathing may be the biggest soother we have because it’s the only element of your nervous system that gets activated under stress that you can actually consciously control .
And I think of your breath like a volume dial in your nervous system that we can consciously reach in and turn down that fight or flight stress response.
So, learning how to breathe is so helpful and there are so many breathing strategies that are easy to do, easy to learn. I’ll put one or two of them in the show notes, and I actually have a video describing my favorite breathing exercise that I call stretch breathing, and I’ll add that as well, so you can download that video from the show notes.
In addition to breathing, you can do so many other things to soothe your body.
Here are some of my favorite soothing activities:
Stretching on the floor,
getting a drink of water,
listening to music,
calling a friend,
getting a hug.
Using essential oils
I like to swing in a tree swing that I have in my backyard.
Going for a walk
disconnecting from my devices,
being in nature,
I could probably come up with a dozen more things that help me feel calmer and turn down my stress response, but these are just a few of the things off of my list.
What really matters is what’s on your list.
I want you to take a moment and think about the things that help you feel better, the things that help you calm down or just feel grounded and I bet you have some go-to things you already do to help you feel soothed and bring your threat meter over to that neutral and even positive side where your body is resting and working the way you want it to work.
Here is the core of this episode, the main thing that I want you to take away from this.
Just like you need sleep, food and water every day, you also need to soothe every day,
and this is a little tricky because you don’t get thirst or hunger signals to remind you of this.
So, we don’t often get reminders we need to actively be soothing our bodies daily until we hit high stress or get completely overwhelmed.
The cues that you need soothe are the feelings of stress that we all just seem to accept in our culture as normal.
But living with our threat system activated all the time is not normal.
We should not be aiming for that as normal.
The truth is that, no matter what stressors you have going on in your life, if you can learn to activate your soothe system, you will be able to protect your body and mind from the damaging effects of stress.
So we need to start to plan for it-
We want to build up your soothe system so it is as big as your other threat and drive system. You kind of want to go to the Soothe System Gym to build up those muscles with in you so you can counterbalance in real time, the stress effects in your body.
I have women that I’m working with that are doing this. They are breaking the habit of being in the threat mode all the time, of beating themselves up, of reaching for alcohol or food at night when they’re so tired and anxious at the end of their day. It’s not the alcohol or the food that are bad in and of themselves, but they’re numbing agents that keep these women disconnected from themselves, from others, and keep the stress cycle going in their bodies.
Of course, we want to numb ourselves when fear is coursing through our bodies. We’re not meant to run on a program of fear. What these women are working on is listening more to their body when they’re tired, slowing down in the middle of their day for a few minutes to recharge, and planning soothing activities at the end of their day to recharge them rather than numb them.
It’s so exciting to see how soothe can change how you feel about yourself and about your life.
So, as you think about the things you need today, I want you to add soothe to your list of ways that you can take care of yourself.
Even just some slow, gentle breaths a couple times a day will start to teach your body how it feels to turn down that threat meter for just a little bit and get a tiny rest.
It’s addictive and it builds soothe muscles in your brain and body so it’s easier to do it the next time.
I want to give you a challenge to go into the show notes and download the video of me teaching you how to do stretch breathing.
Learn the simple method and then practice it two times a day – just five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night.
Heck, even doing it for two minutes in the morning and two minutes at night is going to make it familiar to you
and when you have it in your mind and it’s familiar to your body, you’ll be to do it in the middle of your day. When you’re driving in the car and traffic is crazy, when you’re standing in the kitchen and chaos is surrounding you, you’ll be able to call upon your training and your body will know what to do.
But you need to put a little effort into it. Just a little practice for a few minutes a day will pay off big when you need it
And we’ll practice this more.
But for now, I want you to think about how you can bring moments of soothing deeper into your life and practice them this week.
What have I used before that has helped me feel calm and peaceful, and how can I invite soothe deeper into my life?
The more curious you get about this- the more you’re going to start to notice the things that already help you feel better and soothe you.
I wish you many moments of soothe this week and I’m grateful for our time together and look forward to being with you again next week. Take care.