The lesser known side of the stress system and its effects on your wellbeing

Have you ever been cut off in traffic? You may have felt your heart pumping, your breath getting quicker, your muscles tensing. When things get risky, your body reacts to protect you and help you survive.

This is the "threat system" in action, always scanning for potentially dangerous situations and immediately reacting when necessary. It doesn't only activate in physically dangerous situations, but also in circumstances that are psychologically threatening. You get stressed before a presentation not because you think the audience will have you for lunch, but because you may lose face if you screw it up. Nevertheless, the same physical reactions appear, because the stress system doesn't really differentiate. Danger is danger, no matter whether it's physical or not.

This is the side of the stress system that is most widely known. But did you know that there is another side to the stress system that gets a lot less attention?

Perhaps you recognise situations like these: you're in an argument and you want to make your point, no matter what. Or it's already very late but you really want to finish the report you are writing, even if you know that you are going to be very tired tomorrow.

These are illustrations of what you could call the "drive system". Where the threat system is focussed on self-protection, the drive system is focussed on reward. You go for recognition, excitement, ...

Why is this part of the stress system, you may ask? Isn't it a good thing to have some drive and achieve things that make you feel good?

Of course it is. Just like avoiding danger is a very good thing in itself. The problems arise when you stay in the stress system for too long. If you stay in the threat system for too long, worrying about what might go wrong or fretting over past failures, it becomes very exhausting and paralysing.

When you stay in the drive system for too long, you can also get exhausted. Maybe you've noticed how addictive it can be to strive for rewards? It can express itself in very small examples: how you keep checking you mail in the evening, how you keep looking if someone has already liked your latest status update, ...

Are you able to step out of the threat or drive system from time to time, and switch to the "soothing and caring system"? This is the system in which you are relaxed, where you feel calm, content and loved. Your wellbeing and health depend on how you can balance these systems.

Mindfulness meditation can be a good way to learn to switch to the soothing and caring system. Especially the aspect of kindness towards yourself that is cultivated in mindfulness can be very beneficial to step out of the stress system and switch to the soothing and caring system.

 Heartfulness meditation is a practice in which you focus on opening and awakening your heart; you develop more kindness and compassion towards yourself, and towards others.

Research by Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute has shown that this is the most transformative practice. And I can personally confirm that my own transformation really deepened when I started to regularly practice heartfulness meditations. Especially if you are a perfectionist, or self-critical (like me), it can be very helpful to be kinder to yourself. Paradoxically, this has made me much more active, because before, I kept myself trapped in the threat system with my endless self-criticism. Also, if you are exhausted by constantly striving to do your best, heartfulness meditation can help.

As a gift to you, we already wanted to share a heartfulness meditation (recorded during the spring retreat of this year) which is meant to help you switch to the soothing and caring system more easily. In this 20-minute meditation, you are invited to picture a place where you feel completely safe. Why not try it out, and let us know how it went!