We regulate our emotions using three systems according to Paul Gilbert who founded Compassion Focused Therapy. We, by default, stay in threat mode (that’s why you rarely see someone smiling when they are simply ‘being’). This is due to our evolutionary DNA and ‘wiring’. Of course, it’s uncomfortable to stay in threat mode as it is in this mode that we experience the fight/flight/freeze threat response and where our body releases hormones to help us gather impetus to deal with threat.
We try to escape from difficult emotions
Most of us live our lives feeling under threat. We worry about rejection, humiliation, failure and not feeling good enough. Feeling unsafe is our default mode and this harks back to our early ancestors. We had to be vigilant to avoid being eaten. Thankfully life has moved on but when we are stressed in modern times, our brains are activated in the same way as they were eons ago. Our old brain does not have eyes. Rather our old brain responds to chemicals produced such as adrenaline or cortisol and is activated in this way. So when you are worrying about that looming work deadline and your body begins to release adrenaline, your brain activates fight, flight, or freeze mode.
There are many things that can cause our brains to activate threat mode. In modern-day life this can range from being late for work and too much traffic, debt, rejection or even FOMO. So when we feel threatened it makes sense that we will want to step away from these awkward and uncomfortable feelings.
We engage in activities to give us a dopamine hit
One way that we try to escape feeling anxious is by seeking out dopamine of endorphin hit. When we are seeking at feel good factor we are in drive mode. This includes activities such as shopping, gambling, sex, eating and seeking status and power. The problem with the drive system is that the wards are short-lived. We need the drive system in order to achieve and be successful in life but we also need to balance out the drive system with our contentment system.
We take it easy and become more laid back
The contentment system produces serotonin and oxytocin and these two feel-good hormones last longer in our systems the endorphins and dopamine. When we spend time with friends and family or our pets we are bonding and connecting. This produces oxytocin which is also known as the “hug hormone”.
As you can see a balance of the three systems is the way to maintain balanced emotions. This is easier said than done but a good Theory when it comes to inner equilibrium.
How do you balance your highly stressed moments when you feel anxious? Consider what you do about that anxiety and how you push forward to create inner stability and contentment. Do you engage obsessively with your drive system? Or do you balance it nicely between work and leisure?
At times we can become self-critical when we feel anxious and stressed and this is an unhelpful behaviour.
Self-criticism as a way to motivate yourself
Stop beating yourself up for beating yourself up, thank your inner critic for its efforts, then try the strategy of giving yourself some compassion instead. It’s more effective, and a lot less painful.
We know how much it hurts when we tell ourselves things like: “I’m an idiot!” “I’m disgusting.” “No one will ever love me.” “What a lame-ass.”
So why do we do it? As soon as we ask ourselves this question, we often just pile on more self-criticism. “I’m such a bitch, even to myself.” “That’s why I’m such a loser, I’m always putting myself down.”
Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up in the vain hope that somehow it will help you stop beating yourself up. Instead, take a step back, and give your inner critic some slack. In its ineffective, counterproductive way, your inner critic is actually trying to keep you safe.
Self-compassion is the key to feeling calmer and less under threat.
What you need to do
Accept that uncertainty is a part of life and embrace it. When you are in threat mode, see it as a necessary part of life and accept it rather than resisting it. Avoid self-criticism and focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t control.
Try a solution focused strategy where you brainstorm all the various ways in which you can feel less anxious. For me, I have always found that being appreciative of what I do have in my life can be an instant mood boost.
Mindfulness is another fantastic (and free) way to ease up the worry in your mind. Be in the moment and focus on what you can see hear touch taste and smell. Engaging your five senses stops your brain worrying about things that might never happen. Mindfulness keeps your brain a mini holiday.
Don’t take life too seriously
If you put too much pressure on yourself, you’ll be far more likely to procrastinate and avoid. This is because you put so much pressure on yourself and the fear of failure is heightened. When you relax and ease the pressure you can actually start to enjoy life more.
You really can’t choose to see the funny side of life and to be more flexible in your thinking. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
See the infographic below on emotional regulation theory.