The Role of Emotions

A helpful way of understanding the role of emotions in ME/CFS is to think about the three major emotion systems,  a model by Paul Gilbert. The three emotion systems are drive, threat, and soothe.

A woman looking anxious

  • Our Tricky Brains

    The human brain has evolved to help us do some really clever things that no other species is capable of. For example, we can overcome really complicated challenges, problem solve, we can be creative and develop new things like technology. Unfortunately, the brain is also capable of creating highly negative emotions that we can struggle to understand or manage. It can also do this when we think about the future, or pains from the past, or when we attack ourselves with criticisms and judgements.

    If we had a say in how our brains developed, we probably would not have chosen to include these less helpful processes, unwanted thoughts, images, or emotions. However, we did not have a choice, and it is not our fault that our brains evolved this way.

    The other problem with our brains is that they do not know the difference between the past, present and future threats. Internal and external threats are treated exactly the same way by our brain, and this is where the first of these emotional systems comes in, the threat system.

  • The Threat System

    The threat system is the oldest and most dominant of our emotion systems. This system is always on, and always scanning for danger. It acts like our body’s ‘alarm system’, trying to keep us safe. We are also more biased towards paying attention to threatening information, it gets our attention. This makes sense, as it keeps us safe and helps us respond to danger.

    Unfortunately, our brains also work on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle and because of our ‘tricky brains’, it responds in this way to external problems (those in the world around us), and internal (memories, imagination, self-criticism, judgements, predictions) in exactly the same way. Somebody who is afraid of spiders can feel anxious thinking about spiders. A thought is enough, and our threat system can be activated.

    Our threat system is connected with emotions like anxiety, fear, or anger. When it gets activated, it also releases cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals are part of our fight or flight system. This includes activation our sympathetic nervous system which is contributes  to our heart beating faster, breathing speeds up, we can feel hot, sweaty, tense or even sick. This response is really helpful for getting us to act as fast as we can to respond to threat, for example if we need to run away from physical danger.

    Ultimately, the threat system is important and very good at keeping us safe. However, it is often less helpful in helping us with modern day threats like emotions, memories, the future, or social judgements. We can’t for example, fight or run away from a memory of something painful. 

  • The Drive System

    The second system is the drive system. This is often described as our ‘hunter gatherer’ system. In the past, it would help us to get food and shelter and can motivate and energise us to engage in the world. It motivates us to meet our needs, wants and aspirations, and to achieve goals. When this system is active, we are more likely to take on new challenges, and it can make us more alert to opportunities to pursue goals.

    When we get what we want, this system rewards us with a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine feels good and is a reward, and because of this, it is there when we are getting what we want in life, when we are where we want to be. Unfortunately, life is often not as easy as this. When we are not getting what we want, or where we want to be, dopamine levels drop. This feels less good, and we may be self-critical and move back into the ‘threat system’.

    Overall, drive can be helpful and important to us, it helps us to “get on.”. The problem is when it becomes over used, as we can burn out, over work, and find ourselves back in threat.

  • The Soothe System

    This third system is the ‘soothe system’. Like Threat, and Drive, this system is also part of us and is there from the beginning. Unlike the other two however, it is a system that can ‘deactivate us’. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with resting and digesting, and also relationships. The soothe system allows us to care for ourselves, and to soothe ourselves and others. It is linked with caregiving, and receiving care, and with acceptance, kindness, and warmth.

    The soothe system releases chemicals like oxytocin, endorphins and opiates, all the “feel good” chemicals. It also stimulates our immune system to enter ‘repair mode’. Oxytocin, for example, gets released by skin to skin contact when a baby is placed on it’s mother’s chest. It helps to establish the bond between them but also helps the mother recover and repair from child birth, and prepares the baby’s immune system for the outside world.

    It is associated with a peaceful state, but is actually very unhelpful when we are under threat. So, we cannot live with the soothe system alone, and we do need the other two in our lives.