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Three systems model of emotion in Compassion Focussed Therapy

In Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT), emotions are categorised into three different types and functions:

• The Threat System
• The Drive System
• The Soothing System

The Threat System
These are the feelings that alert us to threat and enable us to know that we may need to act upon them. Anxiety, anger and disgust are key emotions within this system as is the fight-flight-freeze response. This system activates us to do something to protect ourselves. The problem with this system is that our new brain (the one that is capable of imagination, rumination and creativity) can keep the threat alive even when it is no longer present. Therefore, once this system has been activated, it can be incredibly hard to switch off again.

The Drive System
This system is the one that motivates us to do and obtain the things that help us to survive and thrive. Excitement, ambition and lust fit here. This system focusses us on a goal and drives us to do what we need to in order to achieve it. It is also responsible for the positive feelings associated with achieving said goal. As such, this system is very activating and motivating. Cravings and the constant strive for pleasure may keep this system activated, even when these drives are causing unhelpful patterns of behaviour.

The Soothing System
Unlike the other two systems, this one does not exist for drive. It enables us to feel calm, safe, content and soothed. These emotional states exist when there are no threats and no goals to be worked towards or achieved.

Each of these systems are inter-related. However, we can find ourselves stuck within one for more time than is required (e.g. when a threat has actually been removed) or find it difficult to ‘switch on’ the soothing system when we need it. This can cause us immense suffering and through the process of CFT we learn to identify when we are in each of these systems, how to move away when needed and how to activate our ability to soothe or be soothed.