Therapist and author, Courtney Armstrong explores the 7 Primary Emotional Systems and explains how they can inform your therapeutic practice.
Many people come to therapy because they feel confused and overwhelmed by their emotional responses. Likewise, it is all too easy for the therapist to get overwhelmed and confused by their client’s emotions and not know how to help guide them through. Before this happens, it helps to realize that all emotion is simply a request for action. In other words, our emotions are the emotional brain’s way of getting us to do something it thinks would be in the best interest of our survival, or the survival of someone we care about.
In their excellent book, The Archaeology of Mind (2012), neuroscience researchers Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven distinguish seven primary emotional systems within the brain: (1) SEEKING (2) FEAR, (3) RAGE (4) LUST, (5) CARE, (6) PANIC/GRIEF, and (7) PLAY. In this article I will discuss these 7 emotional systems and the actions they are requesting us to take. Conceptualizing emotions in this way will not only help you understand the “emotional gear” in which your client may be stuck, but it will also guide you in selecting interventions that can smoothly shift them into a more balanced state.
When Panksepp and Biven described these emotional systems, they capitalized the spelling to denote it as the name of a neural system, rather than simply an emotion. For the sake of clarity I will do the same as I describe my understanding of the classifications of these systems and the actions they are requesting.
The SEEKING emotional system scans the environment looking for things that seem advantageous to our survival and then compels us to “Get up and go get it!” The neural networks involved in the SEEKING system are fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine and are associated with motivation and drive.
In contrast, when we feel depressed, our SEEKING systems are actually asking us to withdraw energy from something that does not appear to be responding to our efforts. To move out of depression, it is often helpful to consider that depression is simply the emotional brain’s way of asking us to pull back from something that isn’t working and explore how or where our energy could be better directed.
The other way the SEEKING emotional system goes awry is when it drives us to engage in compulsive, repetitive behaviors like substance abuse, obsessive cleaning, or playing slot machines, because the reward we are SEEKING is either delivered in small, less than satisfying amounts or delivered intermittently.
To stop the SEEKING system from compulsively driving a client toward these behaviors, we have to make the behavior or desired object seem less appealing and even disgusting so the emotional brain instead SEEKS to avoid it.
The FEAR system is an emotional and physiological response to a perceived threat that compels us to, “Run away from that thing! It is dangerous!” When a client feels fear or anxiety, she could complain of feeling “frozen,” not knowing which way to turn. Alternatively, she could present with somatic complaints like irritable bowel, nausea, or quivering legs. This is because, when we feel fear, the body directs energy downward to strengthen our legs and empty our bowel and bladder so we can run faster.
When a client presents with these symptoms, it can be helpful to ask, “What in your life seems threatening right now? Is there something you want to get away from in your life?” The only way to turn off the FEAR system is to eliminate the person’s perception of an existing threat, or at least assist them in feeling like they can handle the potential threat.
The RAGE system is triggered when something we care about is threatened; or, when our attempts to SEEK something we want are thwarted. RAGE is asking us to “Make that stop!” or “Get that out of my way!”
Just as FEAR activates the cardiovascular system and directs energy down into the lower body, so RAGE does the same but directs energy upward into the upper body. The jaw clenches, the upper body tightens, and the face flushes to give you the strength to push something out of your way or bite whatever it is that seems to be threatening you or someone you love. When clients present with jaw clenching issues or teeth grinding, it can be an indication of repressed anger. Simply ask them, “Is there something going on in your life that you want to stop or get out of your way?”
Ultimately, to eliminate feelings of RAGE, the perception of a threat or obstacle must be eliminated. Beating pillows or venting wildly about frustrations only seems to escalate RAGE because the SEEKING system has not been fully satisfied. Ironically, I often use humor and PLAY to reduce RAGE because it reduces the perception of a threat. I’ll talk more about the PLAY system later in this article.
In both males and females, the LUST system hooks up with the SEEKING system to activate the animal instinct to pursue a mate and procreate. However, LUST systems are wired differently through the brain in males and females. For instance, male systems connect more through the visual circuits of the brain and mobilize neurochemicals that promote assertiveness. In contrast, female LUST systems connect through circuits that bind with oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and interplays with the CARE emotional system that we’ll discuss in the next section.
These discoveries may explain why men are more aroused by visual stimuli, while women are more aroused when they feel understood and cared about emotionally. That’s not to say that women aren’t turned on visually and men don’t warm up when they feel cared about. This is just to note that men and women’s sexual behaviors involve different circuitries that cause them to pursue sexual needs differently. Understanding this can help you guide couples in better understanding each other’s sexual desires and needs.
CARE is not just nice to have if you can get it; our survival literally depends on it. Several animal studies, and even human studies on orphans, have demonstrated that infants who do not receive consistent care and nurturing fail to develop normally and even die prematurely. Likewise, I have seen clients more severely impacted by childhood neglect than by childhood abuse. Even clients who experienced physical abuse in childhood say the feeling that nobody cared about them tormented them more than the violence they experienced.
The important thing for therapists to take away from the discovery of the CARE system is that we should not underestimate the power of developing a caring, therapeutic alliance with our clients or of assisting them in establishing caring support outside therapy sessions. Providing someone with CARE is also the antidote to the next system – PANIC/GRIEF.
PANIC and GRIEF go hand-in-hand because PANIC is what an animal experiences when it is separated from its mother, pack, or other loved ones (GRIEF). The request from the PANIC/GRIEF emotional system is “Call the loved one(s) home!”
Although the PANIC/GRIEF system involves feelings of pain and terror, it is adaptive, biologically speaking. When a baby bird falls out of its nest and cries loudly, its cries of distress are intended to let its mother know where it is so she can find her little chick. Even as adults, we may feel the urge to moan and cry out in gut-wrenching pain when someone we love has died. It is the same separation-distress call that baby animals make to “call their mothers (the loved one) home.”
Interestingly, I have found the root of panic disorder ultimately involves feeling separated from those we love or fearing social rejection on some level. Therefore, the antidote to PANIC is to identify the perceived loss that triggered profound feelings of separation-distress and to assist the client in developing a sense of safe, caring connection with others. Similarly with GRIEF, the emotional brain feels separated from a loved one and the antidote is to find a way to feel a continuing bond with them even though they are gone.
The desire to PLAY is actually hardwired into our brains. PLAY is a great way to connect with others, learn new skills, and cultivate joy in our lives. Although PLAY is marvelously therapeutic, therapists often avoid incorporating play and humor into their sessions because they do not consider themselves creative, or they fear it would imply they are not taking their client’s issues seriously. On the contrary, I have found that incorporating playfulness into therapy sessions is a powerful way to strengthen the therapeutic alliance, relieve anxiety, extinguish anger, and teach clients a variety of new skills quickly.
I write about a variety of ways to incorporate play into your sessions in my book, The Therapeutic “Aha!”: 10 Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck and will be including ideas for playful interventions in future blog posts. Yet, really all that is required is to maintain an open, PLAYFUL attitude. That will serve you better than trying to stuff your therapy toolbox with clown noses, scripts, and other props – although sometimes the props can help and they certainly are a lot of fun!
In sum, brain researchers have identified 7 distinct systems in the emotional brain that drive human responses and behavior: (1) SEEKING (2) FEAR, (3) RAGE (4) LUST, (5) CARE, (6) PANIC/GRIEF, and (7) PLAY. When you realize that all emotion is simply a request for an action, it can help you and your clients figure out the root issue that is driving their emotional pain and generate ideas for interventions that will help shift these emotional states and ultimately resolve their problem.
Have you noticed these emotional systems in play in your therapy sessions? How do you deal with them? I’d love to hear about your experiences, techniques and tips for working through them with clients. Please share them in the comments box below.
Courtney Armstrong, LPC
15th May, 2015