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.