The resource-seeking system Part 1

So far, we’ve looked at the first of Paul Gilbert’s three emotional systems – the fight/flight system. Over the coming two weeks we will explore the second system, which he calls the ‘drive- and resource-seeking’ system. While the fight/flight system is all about here-and-now survival (trying not to become the tiger’s lunch, so to speak), the second system is also survival-based, though not quite as immediate. We’ve managed to avoid becoming the tiger’s lunch, but we still need to find lunch for ourselves, as well as shelter, medicines to keep us healthy, protection for our children, and so on. This second system is all about ensuring we get the resources we need in order to survive and prosper. When our distant ancestors lived in the savannah, food and shelter were the main priorities. Nowadays, in order to thrive in our society, we may also need a car to get to work, a smartphone to stay in touch, a computer, a house and so on. While there may be legitimate debate about just how much ‘stuff’ we actually need, the reality is that we can’t hold down a job if we only have one item of clothing made of old sacks, can’t wash ourselves, have no way of getting to work, or can’t keep in touch with the world around us. And of course we also want the best for our children, and to give them every opportunity to feel safe, to thrive, and to belong.

The resource-seeking system is what motivates us to get out of bed each morning, to work hard, to accomplish our tasks, whether small or large, and to strive for excellence. We can derive a great deal of our meaning in life, as well as joy and a sense of achievement, from this system. It is based on rewards – each time we achieve something, or get something, whether it’s a promotion, a like on Facebook, a new car, or praise from a family member, our brain releases a little rush of dopamine to help us feel good, and to motivate us to keep trying. The resource-seeking system is a very active and engaged system, and it can be highly energising. It’s certainly a wonderful part of our life, and, like all three emotional systems in Paul Gilbert’s model, it plays an important part in helping us live well. However, there are also some potential pitfalls when we invest too much of our life into this system – when our life becomes out of balance. Next week, we will look at some of the shadow sides which the resource-seeking system can bring with it.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down a list of potential problems that an over-reliance on the resource-seeking system might bring about in our life.

Anja Tanhane

Fight or flight – Part 2

As I mentioned last week, the fight/flight system has its place – we will all find ourselves in situations where this primitive survival system is called for and may even save our lives. Yet in modern life, this system is activated all too readily. The 24 hour news cycle, advertising, over-crowding, insecurity at work, family stress, the political climate – all these can make us fearful and reactive over and over again. Sometimes this is exploited by others – for example click-bait, which are stories designed to have us clicking on to online news, helping them to sell advertising. Politicians may want to make us feel insecure so they can promise us security if we vote for them. The advertising industry often works on our fear – buy this product to keep you and your family safe – and who would not want their family to be safe? So we quickly buy the product or insurance.

Because it is a primal survival response, the flight or flight mode activates the more primitive parts of the brain, in particular the brain stem and the limbic system. This system encourages us to react quickly, without over-thinking. Fortunately, we can learn over time to switch off this primitive reactiveness when it’s not called for, and to instead engage the whole of our brain – including those parts which make us mature, wise, reflective and considerate. In mindfulness, we are in effect asking – ‘what is really going on right now?’ And also, once we’ve become clearer about the current situation, we can also ask, ‘how can I best respond?’ Over time, if we practise mindfulness regularly, we find that our level of arousal in stressful situations is not as high, and we can recover more quickly. This is a major advantage in times when we’re under considerable stress, but need to negotiate our challenges with wisdom and restraint.

These kind of effects are often noticed after only a few weeks of regular mindfulness meditation. Participants in the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course often report in weeks three or four that they were able to deal with a stressful situation more effectively than they would have in the past. Whether it’s our relationship with our family or work, our neighbours or our cravings, we can learn to pause, reflect, and make conscious choices on how to act. Over time, this feels very empowering, as we are no longer so much at the mercy of our primitive fight/flight response.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of a situation where you have recently found yourself in fight/flight mode although there was no imminent physical danger. Imagine yourself in this situation being able to calm yourself down, be reflective, act with restraint. Could this have changed the outcome?

Anja Tanhane

Fight or flight Part 1

Most of us are pretty familiar with fight or flight, which is the first of Paul Gilbert’s three emotional systems I mentioned in last week’s reflection. Fight or flight is a remarkable system designed to keep us alive. It’s a primitive but effective emergency response to a perceived danger, and it mobilises our body for immediate action. In fact, in emergency situations, we often find ourselves reacting before we have time to think. This is great when a snake is coming at you and you have to jump out of the way; not so good when your boss says something you find upsetting and you find yourself screaming abuse at her.

During fight or flight, our body systems go into overdrive – the blood pressure goes up, as does the heart rate, breathing becomes fast and shallow, your body is flooded with stress hormones, peripheral circulation decreases as the blood rushes to the major muscle groups ready for action, and your digestion slows down. Your focus is narrow, fixated on the perceived danger, and you lose sight of the bigger picture. Parts of the brain such as the central pre-frontal cortex, which are designed to restrain your action, reflect on the situation and bring empathy and atunement to another person, go offline. Again, we can see how these responses are great in a survival situation, but less useful in a complex office or family environment.

Unfortunately for us, fight or flight is activated quite easily – after the old adage, better safe than sorry. It is activated just as readily by a real danger, such as a tiger attacking you, as by imagined danger, such as an email from management announcing a major restructure at work. Some people live in dangerous situations, such as a war zone or in a domestic violence relationship, but for many of us the actual physical dangers are rare – and yet we can spend a great deal of our lives in fight or flight mode. And if your stress is chronic, the fight/flight response may not be de-activated between stressors. Because it’s such an extreme emergency response, being often in fight/flight mode is like driving the car down the freeway in first gear – eventually the system will wear out and start to break down. Next week, we will look how mindfulness can be helpful for regulating the fight or flight response a bit better.

Weekly practice idea:

Try to become more conscious of situations where your fight/flight response is being activated. What happens in your body? In your mind?

Anja Tanhane

Living in balance

A good life is a balanced life – we have the right amount of work and rest, of company and solitude, of stimulation and peace, of food, exercise, meditation, and also of rights and responsibilities. It’s impossible to get this balance perfect, and learning to live with imperfection is one of the signs of maturity. Yet living a life which is very out of balance is also going to put strain on our resources, and can potentially leave us depleted. I’ve worked a lot with carers, who often put their own needs aside to focus on the loved one they’re caring for. Carers, as a group, have some of the worst health statistics in the population, and often suffer financially as well. Many are very good at caring for others, but not so good at caring for themselves. If we look at rights and responsibilities as a continuum, most carers would lean heavily towards the responsibility end. Other people in our society are very conscious of their rights, but less aware they also have responsibilities to society. Depending on our upbringing, culture and gender, we may feel more comfortable being aware of our responsibilities or our rights. Yet for all of us there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where we can balance a healthy sense of entitlement with awareness of the needs of others.

Living in balance involves making choices – sometimes major ones, such as whether to have another child, go back to study or find a new job – and also small choices, such as whether to log onto Facebook or sit in the garden with a cup of tea for ten minutes after work. Sometimes there’s not much we can do to change the major circumstances of our lives. For example, parents of a child with a severe disability may be stressed but coping, until one of their own parents also becomes unwell and requires care, really putting the family under strain. We may have a job which involves working long hours, but nothing else is available and it pays the bills. Yet even within those circumstances, we often have more choice about living in balance than we might think.

It could be a conscious choice to slow down, take a few deep breaths and notice our surroundings when we feel stressed. It could be a walk around the block instead of checking the news online. We might spend less time with an acquaintance who is always complaining and leaves us feeling depleted, and more time with our friends or pets or ourselves. We could join a community choir instead of sitting at home watching TV. Or we might curtail our overly busy social life to spend more time at home watching TV!

Over the next few weeks, I will look at a model by Professor Paul Gilbert about our three emotional systems (fight/flight, resource-seeking, and soothing/affiliation) which I’ve found very helpful when thinking about why we’re often not that good at making choices to bring our lives more into balance, even when the opportunity is there.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside ten to twenty minutes, and in a notebook write ‘Living in balance for me means…’ and keep writing and see what emerges. Journalling can be a wonderful way to discover ways to re-balance our lives.

Anja Tanhane