Learning to soothe

By Sally Evans

Did you know that our brains have two evolved ‘safety’ systems?

You may be familiar with one of them already – known as flight/fight/freeze? This is a threat defence system that is triggered quickly when our brains detect danger. This danger could be a bear running towards us, or it could be a flat tyre at the wrong time or a red bill you can’t pay.

Our brain system at that point leads us to either turn towards the threat to attack it, run away from it, or play dead in the hope that the threat will pass.

Such behavioural responses to danger are extremely helpful in the wild! They will keep us alive. But for us in today’s modern world these responses may not actually be helpful and indeed at times, can even make things worse.

This is because the threats we usually face these days are not physical but actually psychological: threats to our self-belief. Our brains get confused between actual attacks and our thoughts about a threat, leading our brain to react as if our very existence is under attack.

Here is an example.

Imagine receiving some negative feedback about your performance at work. Your threat system might respond by ‘fighting’, beating yourself up emotionally, using punishing language to knock yourself down; ‘fleeing’, by becoming anxious and irritable, trying to escape from your inner disappointment, and trying to numb those feelings with sugar or alcohol; or ‘freezing’, by getting stuck in a cycle of self-doubt and rumination.

These responses to the threat we perceive become even worse then because when we criticise ourselves, we become both the attacker and the attacked, which only reinforces the negative effect.

And what is worse, is that the threat system releases cortisol, which adds a considerable amount of cardiovascular stress to our bodies and isn’t good for us physically or mentally long term.

So, what can we do about it?

Thankfully, we possess a second safety system, the soothe system (also known as the caregiving system; Neff, 2003). Because of this system, we have the natural capacity to be soothed by being calm, by warmth and affection.

This deactivates the threat system and instead cultivates calmness. Initiating the soothe system comes from within us. This system is all about slowing down our thinking, being gentle, kind, understanding, and accepting that we are not perfect. We will need to identify we are under threat first, and then talk ourselves into behaving differently in that moment.

The soothe system releases oxytocin, which is really good for us as it strongly increases our feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. It facilitates the ability to feel compassion for ourselves and for others.

The way to kick start the soothe system, is to find what you enjoy and that calms you and do it as often as possible, but particularly in response to moments of ‘threat’ and stress – talking, reaching out, laughing, walking, reading, gardening, listening to music, exercising, stroking pets, hugging, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, being in nature, gratitude, can all initiate our soothe system.

Why not practise today; reduce those threats and move to your soothe system as often as you can?

Sally is the Founder of LifeBuddy.

She is an Organisational Development consultant and is a Practitioner with the Association for Business Psychology.