The Emotional Regulation System And Its Three Subsystems

emotional regulation system

Our emotional regulation system determines how well we are able to control our emotions and neuroscientific studies strongly suggest that there are three subsystems in the brain that comprise this system ; these three systems are as follows :

The Three Subsystems That Make Up The Brain’s Emotional Regulation System :


Let’s look at each of these in turn:


Our threat system has evolved because it is crucial to our survival. When it is activated, we may respond in one of four ways : fight/flight/fear/fawn. It initially evolved to protect us from predators/attackers (wild animals or competing members of our own species).

Of the three subsystems, it is our ‘default setting.’ If we experienced a significant amount of fear and anxiety as children, or had a dysfunctional with our primary carer, particularly in our very early years, it can become hypersensitive (especially in relation to perceived – i.e. real or imagined – social ‘threats’, such as rejection) and cause us a high degree of unnecessary distress in the form of images, cognitions (thoughts), physical reactions (such as rapid, shallow breathing/hyperventilation) and emotions (most commonly anxiety, anger and disgust).

The threat system works according to the maxim that it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’ which inevitably means that much of what we perceive as threatening or dangerous actually isn’t – the principle of ‘better safe than sorry’ that the system acts on partly explains why, as a species, we are prone to :

– overestimating threat

– dwelling on things we believe may harm us

– allow our fears and concerns to take precedence in our minds over positive thoughts

(Remember, our genes ‘program’ us for survival ; they are indifferent to the painful feelings we may experience if such feelings help to ensure this survival.)

emotional regulation


In order to help ensure our survival we also have strong motivations or drives – three fundamentally drives are to attain :

– food

– shelter / safety

– sexual partners

The drive system ‘rewards’ us when we achieve goals by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain – this acts to reinforce our desire to keep achieving our goals. The hit/buzz/high we obtain from achieving goals is ephemeral and transient so, like a drug addict, we have a constant need to achieve more goals (by ‘goal’ I mean anything that increases dopamine availability in the brain and thus makes us feel good, be it eating ice-cream, getting a work promotion or buying a big house). The continual (and, some might argue, ultimately futile) formation and temporary fulfilment of needs goes on and on, endlessly.

Examples Of Problems People May Develop In Connection With Their ‘Drive System :

One problem relating to the drive system is that some individuals experience drives so intensely that they develop impulse control disorders (the inability to prevent oneself behaving in such a way that harm is caused to oneself or others, e.g. gambling).

Another problem is that we can become very frustrated and distressed if we :

– unable to achieve our goals

– we set ourselves goals that are unrealistic

– become so preoccupied and obsessed by the perceived allure of achieving our goals that it spoils our quality of life (often an intense need for high achievement is a symptom of inner feelings of inadequacy or vulnerability).


When this system becomes activated the threat and drive systems become deactivated. In terms of neurobiology, chemicals called endorphins are produced in the brain when the soothing system is operational – these chemicals produce a sense of calm, safety, peacefulness and contentment (self-hypnosis can be used to switch this system on).

As infants, a strong and dependable relationship/bond/attachment with our mother/primary carer is crucial to the healthy development of the soothing system. Indeed, if this early relationship is in some way significantly dysfunctional we are very likely to develop into individuals who find it extremely difficult to calm / self-regulate negative emotions like anxiety anger.

Having good, warm, dependable and supportive relationships with others continues to be very important throughout life if our soothing system is to operate effectively.

Therapies :

Therapies that can help us regulate our emotions in a healthy and appropriate way include :

dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)


compassion focused therapy (CFT)


feel safe hypnosisSTOP FEELING THREATENED AND FEEL SAFE NOW : SELF-HYPNOSIS DOWNLOADABLE MP3/CD – click here for further information.

– Article on Compassion Focused Therapy – click here

– Article on Self-Soothing – click here

emotional regulationCONTROL YOUR EMOTIONS : SELF-HYPNOSIS DOWNLOADABLE MP3/CD – click here for further information.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier MSc

Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.

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