Try this: imagine biting into a slice of lemon.
Feel the tang burst against your tongue, the sourness invading your taste buds with a sharp tingling insistence. Really experience it.
Did you change your facial expression?
Now recall the last time you felt really frustrated or angry. Imagine yourself in that position, the people around you, the tenseness of your muscles and the heat in your body.
Change again. This time, bring to mind the last time you spent with a close friend or partner. Perhaps you exchanged a warm embrace, or sat laughing and smiling in each other’s company. What do you notice about your body sensations then, and now?
These are all examples of how powerfully the mind can evoke changes in our body. We have been aware of this effect for a long time – merely imagining a sexual fantasy or watching a scary movie causes chemical changes within the body.
Similarly, positive thoughts such as gratitude or thinking of a loved one will have a calming effect.
Use Your Attention on Purpose
As Professor Paul Gilbert would say, attention is powerful and we can move it on purpose. We possess the amazing ability to take charge of our minds and choose how we feel based on how we think. But is it that easy?
Gilbert explains that we have 3 primary emotion regulation systems, which dictate how we think, feel and behave. These are:
- The Threat system (for self-protection) – activates the “fight or flight” response to prepare the body to respond to threat; sends cortisol through the body.
- The Drive system (achieving and doing) – triggers release of adrenaline and dopamine when we win or do something new.
- The Soothing system (contentment and feeling safe) – activates the “rest and digest” response, releases oxytocin in the body when we are safe and connected with others.
All three of these are important for our survival and evolution – humans need to be able to recognise danger, be motivated to build and improve, and to seek safety in numbers.
The Soothing System
For many people, the threat and drive systems make sense. The Soothing system however is often underappreciated and underworked, but in reality it too has a very important role to play in our survival. The “rest and digest response” is the opposite to “fight or flight” and is important for wellbeing. Our bodies are only designed to manage the quick surges of adrenaline and cortisol sent by the threat and drive systems for short periods of time. It is then important for the body to return to a resting state. In the past, humans couldn’t afford to let their guard down if they were alone, but being with trusted others allowed them this opportunity.
For many people, these three systems are out of balance, with threat and drive in the driving seat, and an underactive soothing system. This leads to feeling chronically stressed, anxious, angry or depressed, and struggling with shame, self-criticism, and low self-esteem.
The Tool of Self-Compassion
So can we harness the power of the soothing system to improve our lives?
The answer is yes. The trick is to use our mind and the power of attention to activate the soothing system. This can involve various tools, but the most effective is cultivating self-compassion. Individuals can learn to cultivate feelings of connectedness and safety toward themselves, independent of their actual surroundings, making it a very handy tool to combat fear, anger and stress.
Self-compassion is not self-pity – it is a specific skillset, one which allows a person to trigger their “rest and digest” response, and take charge of their physical and emotional health.
When our systems are out of balance, even being around loved ones may not generate the sense of safety and connection that activates the soothing system. Like any new skill, self-compassion takes time and practice to develop. If you are tired of constantly feeling stressed, anxious or struggling with your inner critic, consider booking an appointment with me.
Author: Tiegan Holtham, B BSc (Hons), M Psych (Clinical), MAPS.
Tiegan Holtham is a Brisbane Psychologist and Clinical Psychology Registrar, providing therapy from within a strength-based framework. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, adults and families with difficulties such as body image, eating disorders, self-criticism, perfectionism, and anxiety. Tiegan is a full member of the Australian New Zealand Academy for Eating Disorders (ANZAED) and the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC).
- Gilbert, P. (2013). Mindful Compassion: Using the Power of Mindfulness and Compassion to Transform Our Lives. Hachette UK.
- Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 6-41.