The resource-seeking system Part 2

Paul Gilbert’s model of the three emotional systems is all about balance, and, as we discussed last week, the strive- and resource-seeking system has an important role to play in our lives. However, because it is designed to help us survive, it comes with a strong in-built reward system which can easily hook us in. For example, every time we acquire something or achieve something, we are rewarded with a hit of the feel-good chemical messenger dopamine, which is in effect like getting a little sugar hit. This feels pleasant, and motivates us to keep striving for more. However, the resource-seeking system can become quite addictive – whether to drugs or gambling, or to over-work, or to needing constant praise. Also, within this system, the rewards depend on external validation – whether it comes in the form of a pay rise, winning an award, acquiring a new pair of shoes, or getting likes on Facebook. Receiving external validation feels pleasant, but it also leaves us vulnerable to the vagaries of other peoples’ judgments, the job market, what’s trendy and what’s not, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. And, just as a sugar hit feels pleasant in the short-term but leaves us more depleted, so the excitement of the resource-seeking system can soon wear off – and we either feel strangely flat and dull, or go anxiously searching for our next ‘hit’.

We might put all your energy into our career, neglecting our family and our health, and then find ourselves without a job after the latest restructure. Meanwhile, the family is getting on with their own lives, since they hardly ever saw us, our health is in tatters and our emotional resilience is also very low. Like a gambler on a winning streak, the resource-seeking system works great when things are going our way – but there’s little to fall back on when our luck runs out. There’s nothing wrong with hard work and being rewarded and relishing excitement – as long as we realise the ephemeral nature of excitement and success.

We are all addicted in one way or another to the resource-seeking system – it’s part of our human nature to seek out praise and reward. We may not be addicted to gambling, alcohol or drugs, but on a more subtle level, we still love to get those dopamine hits! We can enjoy them, as long as we keep them in balance. And the best way to find this balance in our lives, according to Paul Gilbert’s model, is to cultivate the soothing and affiliation system, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

Think about areas in your life where you know you’re a little ‘addicted’. Checking the smart phone too frequently is a common one nowadays. Does this ‘addiction’ come with a cost?

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

Holiday favourites – New Beginnings

‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Yet physiologically and mentally we still respond as if we’re standing opposite a tiger about to pounce. Not only is this exhausting, it also limits our ability to remain aware of the bigger picture. We can spend months and years staring at a door which was shut in our face, and in the meantime life goes on, filled with new resources, new delights, new opportunities we barely notice.

The other extreme is to pretend nothing affects us, as if we were somehow immune from the normal processes of grief. Or we may give up too easily – at the first indication that a door might be closing, we’ve already dashed off to look for something new.

During meditation we learn, over time, to rest somewhere in the middle – to loosen our fixations, so our outlook becomes broader; but also to feel our grief when there has been a loss, to allow ourselves, with kindness, to feel hurt. To ‘always look on the bright side’ can be absurd when we are caught up in devastating circumstances. However, even in suffering, there can be opportunities for appreciation – for the caring gesture of a friend, the compassion someone has shown you.

When we watch our breath during meditation, we notice the outbreath coming to an end, a pause, and the beginning of the next breath in. The pause between each breath is the pause before the next new beginning. Resting in that pause can feel like a neutral space pregnant with new possibilities. The breath teaches us that we can’t hang onto the outbreath, to what has gone. Yet we also don’t need to rush immediately to the next breath in.

Perhaps, if we pause from time to time, we find new beginnings emerging by themselves, without much effort on our part. When we feel very stressed, it can be difficult to pause. We might fear getting stuck in the distressing sensations if we don’t rush headlong ahead. In fact, people usually report the opposite – that pausing during stress opens up new possibilities, a different approach, a sense of new beginnings.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take the time to notice your breath, and allow yourself to rest in the pause between breathing out and breathing in. Notice the spaciousness before each new breath begins.

Anja Tanhane


Taking a deep breath

One of the most effective ways we can use to calm ourselves down is to learn what’s called diaphragmatic breathing – filling the whole of our lungs with the breath. You’d think this would be fairly straight-forward – after all, we all know how to breathe, don’t we? – but in fact it’s not. Over many years of teaching people to play the oboe, which is a woodwind instrument and requires diaphragmatic breathing, I’ve never had a student who was simply able to do it. They all had to be shown, and they all had to practise it.

Yet it’s not only woodwind players and singers who benefit from learning how to breathe more deeply. Firstly, the more air we get into our lungs, the more oxygen is available to us, which is healthier for our bodies. Another reason relates directly to our stress response. When we are in fight/flight mode, feeling under threat of some kind, our breath automatically becomes fast and shallow – this is to allow us to either sprint (run away very quickly) or to fight. If our breath is also fast and shallow at other times in our lives, or throughout the day, our brain is getting signals that the body is preparing itself for fight/flight. Thus, the brain is more likely to be on the alert, on the look-out for danger, even if you’re feeling quite safe or are trying to relax.

If, on the other hand, in the midst of a stressful situation, you are able to keep your breath deep and even, you’re sending signals to your brain that everything is under control. Yes, there is a lot going on, but you’re not in fight/flight mode, and you’re managing the situation just fine. You’ll feel calmer during the stressful event, able to think more clearly and respond more effectively, but you’ll also be able to relax more easily once the crisis is over.

So, how do we learn diaphragmatic breathing? The most effective way is to lie down on the floor with a heavy book, such as a dictionary or telephone book on your stomach. When we lie down, our breathing automatically becomes deeper, and the heavy book gives us a good sense of the actions of the stomach muscles rising and falling with each breath. Diaphragmatic breathing feels as if you’re breathing into the stomach, since the full lungs push down the sheet of muscle called the diaphragm between the chest and the abdomen, causing the stomach to expand.

Once you have a sense of this lying down, you can try it sitting on a chair and eventually standing up. When we take a deep breath, our stomach expands, while the chest stays quite neutral, and the shoulders are relaxed. Eventually, with a bit of practice, you can learn to breathe like that all the time, sending reassuring signals to the brain that all is well, you’re in control.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of lying down with a heavy book on your stomach every day, and tune into your breath at other times during the day, gradually learning how to breathe more deeply throughout the day.

Anja Tanhane


A different perspective

When I was still a student, I went for a bushwalk in the Grampians with a group of friends. It was foggy, the kind of fog which doesn’t lift all day, but sits close among the rocks and trees, ethereal and quite magical. I still remember the walk, how atmospheric it was to see the gum trees and granite boulders emerging and disappearing again into the mist. There was a sense of walking in enchanted land; of being, for the day, outside the usual sense of space and time.

A few years later, I did the same walk, but this time the sun was shining, and suddenly, to the right and left, there were stunning views – of valleys, other peaks reaching out into the distance, small towns, farms and vineyards. It was quite surreal, to know all this had been there the first time and I had been unaware of it. I’d had no sense of what was beyond the narrow path and the few trees I could see in the fog. Though I knew there was a world beyond the mist, I didn’t know what it consisted of.

When we are under stress we are often only aware of the narrow path in front of us, and we can lose all sense of the surrounding landscape. This is our survival mechanism, the fight/flight response which kicks in at the first intimation of threat. All our attention is focused on the perceived danger, whether it is someone just about to attack us, or difficulties at work or in the family. We also tend to become self-centred – fiercely determined to look after No 1 first. All these are valid responses to immediate physical threats, but less helpful in complex, ongoing stressful scenarios.

Throughout history, there have been people who have been able to step outside their own narrow self-interest in times of danger and act from a larger perspective. We probably know people like this ourselves – even when life is difficult for them they retain a sense of openness and awareness of the bigger picture. They might be the family mediators, or the colleague who smooths the choppy waters of office politics – the ones who can see where people are coming from, why they might be struggling in certain situations.

Mindfulness can help us develop this sense of greater perspective – being able to pause, ground ourselves, look around and ask – what is really going on here? What is happening in me? What can I sense in my body, what kind of thoughts are swirling through my mind? What is going on for others? By grounding our experience in the direct experience of our bodies, rather than getting caught up in abstract mental notions of how things ‘should’ be, we slowly gain the ability to see beyond the fog of stress; to get a more open, realistic perspective on what the difficulties actually are.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you are feeling stressed, take a few moments to ground yourself – feel the earth underneath your feet, notice your breath, any strong sensations in your body. Does this make a difference to how you deal with the situation?

Anja Tanhane


New beginnings


‘When one door of happiness closes, another one opens, but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one that has been opened for us.’

Helen Keller

One of the effects of being under a lot of stress is that our focus can become quite narrow. We tend to fixate on our problems and hardly notice what else is going on in our lives. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense – when we are in the fight/flight mode, our focus is solely on the tiger which is about to attack us, not on the birds singing prettily in a near-by tree.

Unfortunately, for us living in modern societies, we find our fight/flight mode activated by all kinds of stressors, most of which aren’t life-threatening. Continue reading “New beginnings” »

The Rush to Relax

Flower in glass

We’ve probably all done it – rushed through something which needed to get done, such as cleaning up after dinner, in order to get to what we really want to do. The tasks we are racing through are almost seen as ‘empty’ time, of little importance to us. We feel our lives should be filled with more important matters than washing dishes, paying bills, brushing our teeth. When I saw the movie ‘Amélie’ I was impressed with her calm, considered morning routine. It looked like such a rich part of her life, something she enjoyed every day. My own morning routine seems very mundane in comparison, without the French soundtrack, the special lighting effects, the sense that, because this is a movie, every action is important.

It could be called the rush to relax – the sense that because my time doing the things I love is precious, I need to deal with the rest of my life as quickly as possible. However, there are at least two ways in which living like this is problematic.

Firstly, most of our lives are made up of mundane tasks we have to ‘get through’. By the time we’ve had a shower, prepared, eaten and tidied away three meals, got ourselves to work or school or the shops and back, ticked off the many ordinary tasks we find there, taken care of our family and pets, done our exercise, dealt with the mail, phone calls and e-mail, paid a few bills and organised ourselves for the next day, it’s basically time to go to bed. Continue reading “The Rush to Relax” »