Balancing anxiety

Balancing anxiety: The Three Systems

Due to the way our brains and bodies have evolved over time there are three main activities the mind needs to perform to help us function properly. Paul Gilbert describes these as “the three systems” of the mind in his book The Compassionate Mind and we need all three systems to be balanced in order to have good mental health.

The Threat System

This is the system that is responsible for keeping us alive. It responds extremely quickly when we need it providing us with extra energy, shutting down unnecessary processes and giving us lightening fast mental responsiveness. If this part is too dominant we will be unable to think about complex problems or connect with others as these parts of the brain are “deactivated” in order to speed up our fight/flight reactions. We will also struggle to sleep and digest food (a lot of IBS is linked to threat mode). If threat mode reaches its peak we can also “shut down” and experience total inability to function. This is the brains way of “playing dead” in a crisis which can be helpful but can also have awful consequences if triggered at the wrong time.

The Drive System

This system is all about striving for MORE. It is the part of us that experiences huge pleasure when we get something we want and craves things we don’t have yet. It is the hard-working part of us that can doggedly pursue a goal and it is the part of us that is never satisfied and just wants more when we achieve it. If this part of us is too strong it can leave us feeling like we are “never enough” and that we always have to try to be “perfect.” It can also lead us into addiction as it is impossible to satisfy.

The Soothing System

We are mammals and the soothing system is the mammalian part of us that feels safest in a pack. This system is all about connecting with others, resting and recovering the body. This system gives us our ability to enjoy the present moment and to form meaningful bonds with the people around us. This part of us is often neglected in our education system and in the world of work (in the UK at least) as typical “reward systems” develop the drive system and discourage contentment in the present moment.

We need all three systems to be working together. When anxiety is stopping us living life in the way we want to it is usually because these systems have become unbalanced. If you are struggling with anxiety at the moment take a moment to think about your three systems. Do you think they are balanced? Which systems are strongest for you? Which systems need building up?

When people come to me because “anxiety” feels out of control it is often because the threat system has been working overtime and the soothing system has been neglected. Sometimes the threat and drive systems are working together and the soothing system is losing out entirely. Let’s think about an example that might sound familiar:

Sukie is a military spouse with two young children (aged 3 and 7), her husband is deployed overseas and she lives three hundred miles away from her family. She lives on a patch but they only moved in recently and, although her neighbours seem nice, she doesn’t know them well yet. Sukie has a job in marketing and has kept her job all through the COVID-19 pandemic as she can “work remotely”. It is currently the summer holidays so her seven year old is at home full time. Her three year old goes to nursery but they are not allowed to go in when they have any signs of a cold developing, which is frequent.

Sukie has been called in for a performance review next week because she has missed a couple of deadlines. She can’t stop thinking about it every time she has a moment to herself. Sukie loves her job and takes pride in her ability as a creator. She also needs to earn money in order to pay off debts.

Sukie is finding it hard to sleep at the moment. She notices that for long periods of time she has no appetite, and even feels sick, but then once the kids are in bed she craves sweet food. She tries to reach out to other mums on the patch but finds it hard to make small talk as she can’t “concentrate.” When she sits down to work, mostly late at night, she just doesn’t seem to have any good ideas. Small tasks, like paying bills, feel overwhelming and impossible. She finds herself snapping at the kids more often than usual. She is also struggling with painful IBS symptoms and generally feels exhausted. Despite all of this Sukie is determined to be “the best mum she can be” so that her kids don’t suffer as a result of the pandemic and their father being away.

In this case it is highly likely that Sukie’s soothing system has gone offline, almost completely. In this scenario she has had no time or opportunity to connect with others on a deep level or to stop and enjoy the present moment. She is constantly striving to be “good enough” as a mother and “good enough” as an employee. The drive system is operating at full speed, giving her energy and motivation to keep going and trying to meet the standards set my herself, her employer and society. The threat system is likely to be working alongside the drive system as she is scared of what will happen if she loses her job and she worries about the impact of the situation on her kids and their future. Every time she imagines the performance review going badly the threat system sends her more energy but also makes it harder for her to focus and be creative (with her kids or at work). Sukie’s body is also starting to suffer as the threat system has switched off the ability to rest, digest and heal.

Restoring the balance when life is hard

Sukie’s story was painful for me to write because it is very close to home. It is also a story I have heard many times from my therapy clients. If you are part of the military community it is likely that you relate to some, or all, of that story. The fact is the times we are living in make it HARD for us to keep our three systems in balance. I would love to recommend that you go and do an hour a day of yoga and then Facetime your best friend as those things DO help your soothing system to come back online. BUT I know that that for many of you, and me, that just isn’t realistic right now. The good news is there are small things you can start doing now that will help you to build up your soothing system so that you can deal with your anxiety AND live life the way you want to (in the circumstances).

This blog series will cover practical strategies you can use in more depth, starting with mindfulness next week (spoiler, you don’t have to meditate to be mindful, you can do it while watching your toddler on the toilet).

For today I just want you to practice activating your soothing system so you can feel what it is like, notice the effect it can have on anxiety, and start to get the benefit right away.

Learn Your Soothing Breathing Rhythm

One of the fastest ways to get out of the threat system and to activate the soothing system is to connect with your body through breathing.

  1. Breathe DOWN into your belly. If you put your hands under your ribcage you should feel it expanding as you breathe in and deflating as you breathe out. There should be NO movement in the shoulders or chest.
  2. Most people find this is easier if they breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth
  3. We want to slow down the rate of breathing so that the body learns we are safe/not running away from something. In order to achieve this many people find it helpful to follow this pattern: Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 6
  4. This is not fixed and you may find a different pattern feels better for you. The key is to be in control of your breath and gradually slowing down the number of breaths you take per minute.

There is some hard science behind why this particular technique works. There are two nervous systems which control the fight/flight and rest/digest responses and they switch each other on and off. When we breathe into the belly we activate the nervous system that allows rest and digestion and as a result we switch off the fight/flight system. There is nothing “woo” about it.

This is also a GREAT lesson to teach your children. When kids are feeling emotional you will often notice their breathing gets out of control and their shoulders end up around their ears. There is no point talking to them when they are in that state. If you can get them to breathe along with you it can be a quick way to defuse a panic, tantrum or sobbing session so you can talk about what is wrong.

Top tips for kids (or adults who find this hard)

Use a toy or prop to help little ones breathe in to the belly. Get them to lie on their backs and put an object on their tummy. The game is to use their breathe to move the toy up and down. Older kids (and gown ups) also sometimes find it helpful to imagine they are blowing up a balloon in their tummy, holding on to it and then letting it deflate as they breathe out.

I hope this has been a useful start in understanding anxiety, why it might be making it hard for you to work, focus on job applications or plan your career right now. My aim over the next few weeks is to give you the practical strategies you need to make the best of the current (very difficult) situation. So please do get in touch via the RFS forum to let me know what you are struggling with and what you need from me.

Dr Rosie