Understanding Your Brain: Threat, Drive, Soothe

Through some research I came across Paul Gilbert’s Training Our Minds In, With, And For Compassion: An Introduction To Concepts and Compassion-Focused Exercises. I learned a lot from the booklet he wrote for patients or anyone working with a compassion-focused therapist.  I like how he stated the purpose of the techniques were “so that our unpleasant emotions are easier to regulate, and our positive and pleasant emotions are easier to generate.”

I didn’t realize until just recently that I haven’t been compassionate with myself.  I have a tendency to be judgmental and sort of harsh in my expectations of myself.  It wasn’t until talking to my therapist and then later listening to a family member that I started to catch on. I really like the idea of being able to regulate my unpleasant emotions and promote the positive ones so I researched more into what Dr. Gilbert had to say.  I actually found his work through some Twitter trail hunting.  There is an organization in London called Mental Health at Work that has a newsletter.  In that newsletter, Dr. Bradley Mann, a consultant clinical psychologist and CBT therapist wrote an article in which he referenced Paul Gilbert’s ideas on three ways the brain can work.  The brain works in many ways but he has defined and labeled three ways so as to communicate his ideas.

A-1 Appliance Parts

Dr. Gilbert first discusses what he calls our “old brains” the parts of our brain that are geared toward survival and that react without lots of thought.  Those parts are the ones that have kept us alive for eons. They are prone to suspiciousness, anxiety, fear and other emotions that have motivated us to move away from trouble like large carnivores or tribal enemies.  Photo by Frida Bredesen on Unsplash

Apparently, since many of us no longer live near four-legged hunters that track us down we have a tendency to internalize these emotions rather than act on them physically.  Like the anxiety of fight or flight was an important part of avoiding having our head bit off by a tiger for instance. It’s worth noting that those “old brain” emotions are not our fault that those feelings were built into us.

Then Dr. Gilbert explains that we are not like animals because of our “old brains” but that basically we can learn and train our brains to new behavior because of all the other parts of our brain.  We can train ourselves to minimize the “old brain” reactions and substitute what we consider positive feelings and behaviors.  Though it’s worth mentioning the “old brain” responses aren’t negative or bad per se they are just undesirable at any given time.  The overreactions need to be reserved for a time they are not actually overreactions that is when survival is an issue.  He also explained that like with all things that need practice it’s easier to train yourself when things are more peaceful rather than in the heat of the moment.

The more you dwell on your anxiety the more anxious you will become. “The good news is that we can learn to stop and notice this process by which our emotions and motivations have taken hold of our thinking. We can … make a decision as to whether we want to go with that flow or maybe change the direction of our thinking or attention.  This is called becoming ‘mindful.’”[i]

Becoming mindful means we can refocus


our thinking and attention onto things that are helpful to us. Because we didn’t choose our “old brains” it is important to stop blaming ourselves.  It’s like it makes room for us to take responsibility for the parts of our brains we can work on controlling through practice.  We can start affecting where our thoughts go rather than getting swept away in emotions.

Just like when others are kind to us we can feel a big impact when being kind to ourselves. Not instantly attacking yourself is just like you wouldn’t attack a friend for making a mistake or being sharp with a loved one would quickly spiral downwards and be less effective.  Being sharp with yourself makes you hurt and consequently defensive.  It closes your mind to learning better ways to handle a situation or even the thoughts that are harsh.  Sometimes the harsh thoughts come from core values which were instilled very young and without much participation on your part.  It’s like the saying when we know better we do better.  We have the opportunity as adults to choose our core values and how we will act on them not only with others but with ourselves.

“The point is that if we inherit a range of difficult emotions and desires, and our brains and minds are shaped by those around us (none of our choosing), it may help us if we can learn about our brains and minds then the greater our chances are of learning how to direct or calm these feelings rather than them directing us.”[ii]

The key is to practice.Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

These raw emotions and untamed thoughts are usually uncomfortable because they are meant to motivate us toward action and away from threats. How we respond can either calm us down or work us up. Anger, anxiety, disgust, shame, and guilt are emotions we can let dominate us or we can refocus and work differently with them so they don’t overwhelm us or lead to undesirable actions on our part.

Excitement can be difficult to guess at.  The first blush of something exciting can be enjoyable.  However, sometimes the excitement can diminish over time and it may require more stimulation to get the same rush of excitement.

Learning to care for ourselves can help us feel more peaceful and help with the positive emotions of contentment, love, and affection. Dr. Gilbert has a great question to think about…  Photo by Autumn Goodman on Unsplash

Are you thinking for yourself or are your emotions thinking for you?

Just because we might feel bad when having some of the previously mentioned emotions that doesn’t mean they are altogether negative.  They are part of our “protection system” and are important to have. The difficulty comes in having one or more of them dominate your thinking if they are unnecessary or are prolonged.  Finding balance with our emotions is what is most important according to Dr. Gilbert. That seems a reasonable idea as imbalance seems to be what pulls us away from our desires and goals.

When we are feeling a “protection system” emotion like anger it is ok to acknowledge that feeling as it is understandable but it is important to just as quickly as possible turn to a coping opportunity. When you struggle to cope it’s so easy to feel defeated which often snowballs into depression and loneliness.  Dr. Gilbert uses the word “rumination” and defines it as “finding it difficult to refocus our minds on things that are helpful to us.”[iii] Consequently you’ll be stimulating the parts of the brain that are not helpful to you.

He calls things like gut reactions “body memories” because we may react without much thought which can trigger us going down the path of least resistance initially.  “Body memories” can lead to rumination unless we are mindful and change our direction toward a way to cope. Things from the past can lead to overwhelming emotions.  Our brains sometimes are just repeating feelings, attitudes, and memories from the past.

“Children who have aggressive, competitive or dominant parents may become very submissive. In conflict situations, they back down because the body remembers how they used to be overwhelmed by the parent if they tried to fight back in the past. Or they may ruminate on feelings of resentment. They may even become aggressive themselves. We call these protective or safety behaviors and strategies… usually, they just develop in us without much thought on our part.”[iv]

The problem with “safety behaviors” is that they are often applied across the board and aren’t necessarily good or effective in every situation. What we have learned that become body memories or reflexes of a sort may have worked before as emotional survival mechanisms but now are either triggers or potholes to trip in when applying the same kind of idea elsewhere. It’s stopping and noticing what we are thinking along those old lines that is our “first step to having more control… by developing compassion we can organize our minds in new ways.”

But how do the feelings we have interact and how does compassion make a difference? It’s probably no surprise that our brains give priority “to dealing with threats” rather than “pleasurable things.” The feelings that are easiest to trigger and our minds fall back to are these perceived threats. These also give us our body memories or feelings.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

First, our “threat-protection system” operates with a “better safe than sorry” reflex.  We tend to react rather than think through the perceived threat. It’s the ancestors that ran whether it was an overreaction or not that survived.  So that is how our brains are designed to work.  We have a tendency to overestimate some of our concerns. Our brains are meant to protect us not to be calm and collected. Rather than be rational our brains can be “over-eager protection systems” and need some coaxing toward a calmer approach to things that may arise in our lives.

Photo by Vitaly on Unsplash

The second “incentive and resource-seeking system” which can be seen as the “drive-excitement system”[v] can go into overdrive sometimes and perceive various conditions as threatening. “If over stimulated… it can also drive us to wanting ‘more and more’ and to ‘frustration and disappointment’. When our desires and goals are blocked for some reason this can be seen as a ‘threat’, the threat system kicks in with anxiety, frustration or anger.”

les-anderson-201150Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

Third the “soothing and contentment system” which can be fueled by endorphins and oxytocin help us feel more peaceful.  Things like love and appreciation and feeling safe help us have a “sense of well-being”.  The kindness others show us can help us feel socially accepted and so it’s no surprise that the same kindness shown to ourselves can add to that peacefulness we can feel.

The key again is to practice these things when we are calm as “moods are patterns of our feelings… [so] trying to be understanding and compassionate about our moods can be helpful.”

Even more complicated we humans can have emotions about our emotions. That’s why it’s so important to have compassion toward ourselves. It can stop the “self-attacking” we can experience when we are trying to sort things out. That’s part of the reason positive feelings can feel a bit foreign.  It can take some getting used to having positive, re-enforcing feelings that’s why practice is often needed to become comfortable with them.  Occasionally the positive feelings can even trigger some fear as the status quo is disturbed. Warm and kind feelings can make you feel weak or vulnerable.  These warm and kind feelings just need to be exercised to feel stronger and more stable, just like exercising a muscle in the body. Compassion is about getting a variety of feelings.  Compassion is not a matter of letting your guard down or giving in to others.

Dr. Gilbert uses the analogy of a Christmas tree.  The lights on the tree make various patterns which are very strong looking but the whole tree is made up of more things than just the lights. Together the tree, the decorations, the gifts and the lights all make up one scene.  Our brains feelings come in different patterns and are very strong but we don’t want to just cling to one pattern such as anger or anxiety.  We are made of more than that.  We have the capacity for contentment and relaxation and other feelings too.  We are made for a variety of patterns and can enjoy a world of feelings that serve different purposes.  Exercising the positive feelings will open up the scene of the Christmas treejad-limcaco-281097 Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

and remind us we are so much more than we are thinking right now. We want to exercise the compassion pattern so it can help us cope with the other more difficult patterns we come across like dealing with anger or anxiety.

So becoming compassionate with ourselves is a bit of a process. First, we need to be motivated to become compassionate. Second, we need to become sensitive to our “pain, upset, wants or needs.” Third, we need to be open to not just our suffering but the suffering of others in a way that invokes sympathy. Fourth we can only be open if we can tolerate the sympathetic feelings. Criticism, running away from the feelings or suppressing them are all less productive coping strategies. Fifth we need to experience empathy which is putting ourselves in another’s shoes the best we can and feel what they are feeling.  We need to feel curious and explore why we feel what we are feeling or think what we are thinking to have empathy with ourselves. Sixth is the ability to not condemn or to be non-judgmental. That goes for ourselves as much as for others.  A general ability to notice our feelings but not act on them.  This again takes practice to develop these feelings “in small stages, step by step.”

Paying attention to something is what we are directing our focus towards.  Paying compassionate attention is the goal.  After that, we need to reason or think compassionately. Thirdly is behaving compassionately.  paul-stickman-263860Photo by Paul Stickman on Unsplash

When we seek to help others overcome difficulty and thrive we will also behave that way more toward ourselves.  This will help the well-being of those around us as well as putting ourselves in a better position. Being compassionate isn’t always saying yes to everything sometimes saying no to someone or something is being compassionate as well. Being submissive so that we become needy is not compassion.  Healthy assertiveness as well as focusing on others can make a strong balance. Selfishness is not the answer because others will turn away. Developing compassion will help settle our feelings.

Self-criticism is like bullying ourselves. Self-criticism stimulates the threat system in our brain. It is important to think and decide if criticism from ourselves or others is reasonable or accurate.  Allowing frustration to set in because of the criticism triggers the threat signals in our brain. The important thing is our intentions to become more compassionate.  As we work on the compassionate thinking our feelings will eventually follow. Self-kindness can be new and be threatening at first because it is unfamiliar. “Self-compassion is about focusing on our similarities and shared humanity with others, who also struggle as we do.”


[i] Gilbert, Dr. Paul, Training Our Minds In, With, And For Compassion: An Introduction To Concepts and Compassion-Focused Exercises. Page 7

[ii] Page 9

[iii] Page 13

[iv] Page 15

[v] Page 18


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  1. Caroline

    So much knowledge in one post! Really informative and in depth, read such a good resource about compassion. But you’re right it is truly fundamental for any kind of self development, as beating yourself up will never have positive outcomes. And I really like that you picture compassion as a muscle, that seems to be quiet true. I think I’m gonna have to read it again, there were so many useful things in it 😄 thank you!

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