Understanding your emotional systems to help you cope better this winter
- 15 Dec 2020
This blog was originally delivered as a presentation at the virtual Kidney Patient Conference Wales on 25 November 2020 – more information about this event along with other presentations and resources can be found on the Kidney Patient Conference website
"Hi everyone and thank you for inviting me to talk today. I am really pleased to be here to talk about the systems that regulate our emotions. I hope people will come away with an understanding of how your mind works, what puts you under stress, what drives you, what exhausts you and what helps you to recharge your batteries. I hope this will allow you to take a step back and cope better this winter.
Let’s start by talking about the brain. As humans we have these amazingly complex and tricky brains. They have evolved over millions of years to ensure we survive to pass our genes onto the next generation so a lot of the way we react to situations is just part of who we are. Psychologists believe we have 3 systems that regulate our emotions and at any one time we are in one of these systems. These are drive, soothe and threat and I’m going to talk you through these one at a time.
The first system I am going to talk to you about is threat. This will be very familiar to you and you can think of it as your alarm system. For most people it’s very sensitive and even slight threats will trigger it. And it has a better safe than sorry approach. As humans we have a bias towards processing threat information which makes sense when you think of it from an evolutionary point of view. If you think about one of our ancestors walking through woodlands and coming across a rustling bush, those people felt, threatened, reacted, and ran away lived to tell another day. While those who hung about and weren’t concerned, were much more likely to end up as dinner and less likely to pass on their genes.
The threat system can be triggered by external things, like seeing a fire but can also be triggered by internal things. That may be our thinking; might be worrying about what might happen in the future; or it might be thinking about things that happened in the past. So what happens is that our bodies get flooded with stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, our heart beat goes up, our blood pressure goes up and our body prepares itself to fight, run away from danger or freeze. So we start to feel angry, anxious or depressed. Our thinking becomes very narrow and the front part of our brain stops working and this is the part of the brain that helps us to think through things, problem solve and only the back part of the brain really works. And that’s very narrow thinking and we’re very focussed on dealing with the threat.
There are many things that put us into threat and at the moment there is so much going on. There is Covid to deal with, and of course that’s very frightening. We might feel threatened from being apart from family and friends. Working at home and online might make us feel threatened and doing things like this virtual conference might put us into threat. And we’re having to deal with hospitals, appointments and blood tests and all that can put you into threat.
The next system is drive and this is the system that gives us our get up and go. It’s what motivates us, gets us out of bed in the morning, gets us achieving tasks, getting things done. And gives us feelings of excitement and achievement. For our ancestors, it would have been the drive to get the things done that we needed to survive like food, shelter and territory. In the modern world, our drive systems push us to pursue things like money, success at work or training for a big event like a marathon or climbing a mountain. When we achieve things we a get a rush of a brain chemical called Dopamine which feels nice and gives us a buzz. Our thinking is quite narrow, there are changes in our sleep and we’re very focussed on our achievement.
So things that put us into drive could be training for a marathon, trying to earn lots of money. And the Covid situation puts us into drive. There are lots of rules and regulations and lots of things we need to deal with to keep ourselves safe. And preparing for Christmas can put us into drive, so planning the perfect Christmas dinner, getting all the right presents is the drive system being activated.
So the final system is soothe. This, in evolutionary terms, we can think of as our care giving system. If you think of mammals, they spend time grooming one another and it’s very important as a species that we care for one another and learn to receive care. For species that don’t care for one another, where individuals that go it alone from birth, like tadpoles, have a very low survival rate. As humans, our success as a species is down to our ability to care for one another and receive care. So what happens to us? We get a surge of a brain chemical called Oxytocin. This is sometimes called the love hormone; it makes us feel calm and relaxed. Everything is much slower and we can recharge our batteries. Our soothing system acts as a break to threat and drive, so it slows the other two down. We feel contented and our thinking is much more open. So, we tend to be more reflective and compassionate towards ourselves and others.
For example, it’s very instinctive to soothe a crying baby by rocking and holding the baby. It feels good for the baby and the parent. External things like a hug can activate our soothe system but it can also be activated internally that might be meditation or a walk on the beach or a hot drink and a book.
I’m going to explain this by using three different examples starting with Father Christmas. He has a really big drive system because he has a lot to do. He has to get the elves working in the workshops, he has to make his lists and check them twice; he has to make sure the reindeers are ready; and all the right presents go to the right children. So he needs a really big drive system. Of course he also needs a threat system because he will meet danger and will need to deal with it appropriately. He might get stuck in a chimney or it might be a foggy Christmas eve and he needs to know how to respond to that. His soothe system is pretty good too. Once Christmas is done, he can sit back in front of the fire with his cat and Mother Christmas.
Another example is Kevin from the movie Home Alone. If you haven’t seen it, Kevin wakes up to find his whole family have gone on holiday and have forgotten to take him with them and he’s left alone in the house. Not only that, there are burglars who are intent on breaking in. So Kevin has a really big threat circle quite understandably. He has a lot of danger that he needs to react to. Kevin also has a big drive system and he sets about setting booby traps and trying to catch the burglars out. Plus he has quite a big soothe system as any child left home alone will indulge in those things they are not ordinarily allowed to do such as eating lots of ice cream and sweets, watching movies and staying up late.
Another example is Buddy the Elf. Buddy is born in the North Pole, and he has to go across New York to find his father. So he has a big drive system. He has to get himself organised and get across New York and find his dad. He also has a smallish threat system, which he needs as he does meet dangers along the way and he needs to be able to react and respond. But Buddy has a huge soothe circle. He does lots to make himself soothed, calm and relaxed. He likes sweets and candy, he likes arts and crafts. He likes singing and singing alone as well as with other people. And Buddy likes hugs.
None of these systems are bad. They are all important and essential for our survival but it’s all about balance. If you imagine each of these systems as a balloon in a box, if one of these balloons is really inflated a lot, then the other two are going to be small as there’s not much room for them. And that’s when things can feel out of balance. If you imagine the red balloon is filling the box someone is going to feel under stress and distressed at that time. Similarly if the green balloon is filling the box and the other two balloons are much smaller then that’s not great either because that person’s not going to have much drive in them. They may not be able to get themselves out of bed or get going in the morning and they may not react to danger appropriately.
So what are your circles like? If you had to imagine your three circles what would they look like? Would the threat circle be bigger than the rest? If you think about it some of the things we have to face this winter would put us into threat and drive. You may be dealing with appointments relating to your kidney failure or your kidney disease. There may be winter storms or bad weather conditions to deal with. You have to deal with all that Covid is bringing to us and hospital appointments. So for many people this year, their systems will be very much out of balance.
I’d like to spend the last few minutes explaining how you can build your soothing circle. I’ve taken some ideas from a really lovely website of things you can do to soothe yourself using all the senses. It might be things like low lighting or candles; it might be using sound like sounds of nature; it might be touch through a soft blanket or a warm bath; or smell like aromatherapy or taste. There are lots of different ways you can soothe yourself and you need to try these things to see what works for you. Staying connected with other people is really important and much more difficult this year. Think about the ways you can stay connected. It might be telephone or video or writing letters or emails. And some people have been creating special socially distanced greetings so when they see people and they can’t hug them, what can they do instead. For some people it may be placing their hands on their hearts as a greeting; or if you have good balance it may be toe bump. Or it may be learning the British Sign Language sign for love. Children are very good at soothing so it’s worth thinking back to what you used to do as a child. What did you do to make you feel calm? Was it spending time with nature, was it music, was it art? Did you do jigsaws or reading? Also think about how you speak to yourself. We can often be critical of ourselves and that pushes us into threat. So when we talk harshly to ourselves we can trigger or activate our threat circle. It’s helpful to think about how you talk to friends and encourage them to make them feel calm and then use the same voice on yourself. So if there was a disaster this Christmas and you burnt the turkey, instead of telling yourself that you’re useless or worthless and you’ve ruined Christmas, maybe think about what you would say to someone you loved ie that it didn’t matter, that it would be okay and Christmas dinner would be fine. And that will help to avoid increasing your threat circle.
For my final thoughts. This winter may be harder than normal and there may be many things that will activate your threat and drive systems. Feeling distressed is understandable and it’s OK not to be OK.
Think about your Christmas tree. What colour are your lights? Is there more red lights (threat) or blue lights (drive) and what can you do to increase the number of green lights (drive) to help you cope better?
Question: Any tops tips for someone who is finding things overwhelming?
Answer: Lots of people are feeling overwhelmed at the moment. It’s a common thing and the things we do to recharge our batteries we can’t do at the moment. The things we do to look after ourselves like spending time with families and friends just aren’t available to us. So it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed so think about some of the things you can do to soothe yourself and look after yourself. You can talk to family and friends to let them know how you are feeling or if you’re really struggling, talk to your renal team to see what help and support they can give you. There will be links to websites put out after this event from Cardiff and Vale Board that people can visit to find support for their psychological well-being."
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