How to balance our psychological Drive, Threat & Soothing Systems during the COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

You know those 'keep calm and carry on mantras?' Sweet and nostalgic and the sort of thing we see adorning walls and doors. Indeed, ordinarily, raising a smile and getting on with the task in hand is a pretty good strategy for most. However, I think I think the 'keep calm and carry on message' is not terrifically helpful in these strange and testing times. In terms of survival strategies, when there is an actual threat to the safety of ourselves and our loved ones it is natural to feel unsettled. In fact, it's important that we do. It's that feeling of being unsettled which activates our 'drive' system. It's the drive system which is helping us to keep focused on washing our hands and keeping our distance from others. That unsettled feeling tells us that these are not normal times and that abnormal actions are required. That unsettled feeling reminds us of exactly what it is we have to lose.

However, as I'm sure you are quickly finding, that unsettled feeling can be utterly exhausting too! In order to be functional we have to ensure that our drive, threat and soothing systems are all firing and are balanced. If we have too much threat activated in our system then we cannot function. Too much threat means panic buying, too much threat means washing our hands for 5 minutes at a time not 20 seconds, too much threat means losing sleep and feeling stressed.

So? How exactly do we balance and soothe ourselves so that we don't burn out? It's the million dollar question. But with practice and perseverance it's relatively simple. The first step is to try to hold those 3 systems in mind. Drive, Threat, Soothing. It's worth saying that our relationships with our own internal systems are often paved for us by our childhood and developmental experiences. However, by learning about these systems and how to exploit them to our advantage we can, as adults re-set and re-balance our own key drive, threat and soothing systems.

So, as you can see from the figure above, these three systems are interconnected and inter-related. It’s important that we are able to recognise and respond to our threat system in order to activate our drive system. However, too much drive and too much threat means we risk burn out. Our rather clever human brains have developed to allow us to do all kinds of marvelous things that mammals can’t do. For example, we can identify what job we want to do, plan our path to it and then make it happen. We can pick up a travel magazine for inspiration and then work hard, save hard and go and make memories to last a lifetime on our dream trip, and so on. However, our clever human brains haven’t yet developed to allow us to automatically know that we can also find threat in a room where no immediate threat is present. Our threat system can be activated by reading about threat and by hearing about threat and remembering threat as well as when we are directly under threat!

The first step to winning this threat battle is to engage our main self-soothing strategy. The good news is, that it’s something you will always have with you! It’s your ability to take purposeful and mindful breaths. Let’s practice together!

Take a breath in now. 
Breathe in through your nose if you can. 
Hold it for a moment. 
Breathe out through your mouth if it feels comfortable. 
Pause for a moment, and repeat.