The soothing system – Part 1

The third system in Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems (the previous two were ‘fight/flight’ and ‘resource-seeking’) is what he calls the ‘soothing and affiliation system’. This system is crucial for rest, regeneration, and healing. Unlike the excitement and intensity of the other two systems, the soothing and affiliation system is quiet, receptive, and content. In the hectic busyness of our everyday lives, the soothing system is easily overlooked – and yet, so much of what we value in life springs from, and is nurtured through, this system.

It could be feelings of appreciation, of gratitude, of being grounded and present. There might be a sense of coming home to ourselves, of connecting with our deepest values. There’s little excitement in this system, but instead it allows us a deep sense of joy. Excitement has its place, but it can easily be derailed. For example, as a child you may have been very excited about getting a new bike, only to have one of your friends make a snide comment about its colour – and immediately your excitement gave way to hurt and disappointment. Contentment is different – a colleague may make a cutting remark about the compliment you received from your boss, but you are basically content within yourself, and can recognise the remark for the jealousy it probably is. We hear a lot about the search for happiness, but I find thinking about contentment more useful. We can feel sad, even a little hurt by unkind remarks, and still feel basically content.

The soothing and affiliation system is also important for kindness and compassion. We’re hardwired to be calmed down in the face of kindness. When we’re constantly in a rush, it’s difficult to find the time to sit with someone, really listen to them, respond empathetically to their distress. Deep social connections and support take time. That doesn’t mean we have to invariably spend hours listening to someone when we ask them how their day was. Yet eventually, if we’re always in a rush and distracted when we talk to our friends and family, those relationships are going to suffer.

In his book ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing – Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’, Norman Doidge writes about the research by Stephen Porges, which found that activating the parasympathetic nervous system (which is our resting and regenerating system) also turns on our social engagement system, as well as the middle ear muscles. This allows us to communicate and connect with others. There are young children with sensory processing difficulties who are constantly overwhelmed by the sensations coming at them, and are therefore mostly in fight/flight mode. They may show little interest in interacting with others, until they are given the opportunity to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for example through sound therapy, as Norman Doidge describes in his book). Once they’re able to relax and don’t feel overwhelmed, they may then become very engaged socially.

The soothing and affiliation system is crucial if we want to find a way of life which is fulfilling and balanced. Yet, because it’s not related to our immediate survival needs, it can often be neglected. Next week, we will look at some ideas for nurturing this system in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Put aside ten to twenty minutes, and reflect on areas in your life where you are currently cultivating the soothing and affiliation system. Does it feel the right balance, or do you need to spend more or less time in this system?

Anja Tanhane