COVID-19 impacts the respiratory and circulatory system. It also, inevitably, impacts all of our emotions. Instead of taking the damaging position of categorising responses as a reflection of mental health and labelling with ‘disorders’ that dehumanise, a more helpful way of making sense of these reactions is to consider the ‘emotional systems’ that unite and connect us, to ourselves, each other and to all of life on our planet.
Emotional systems – what are they?
According to the neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, emotional systems are ancient, evolutionary mechanisms embedded deep within your body, mind and soul. And you don’t need to think and know about them to experience your emotional systems – they are far too important for that.
It is our birthright that our emotional systems should guide us, and guide us well. Staying attuned and balanced with regard to our evolutionary driven internal guides will take us far. However, our experiences as children and adults more often than not create barrier after barrier to block our connection with our emotional world. As a result, emotional problems come in many forms, the most significant of which is the problem of not paying attention to our and others’ emotional systems.
Most people I talk to, teach and work with – including psychologists – have not heard of emotional systems. But you know all about them; they drive you, whether you are conscious of them or not.
And why not just call them ‘emotions’ rather than ‘emotional systems’? Well, for the same reason that we would consider the whole of our respiratory system rather than just focusing on breathing. There is a lot more to the process of getting oxygen around the body than the breath, just as there is a lot more to assertiveness than a strong voice. This emphasis on emotional systems also helps us to stop focusing on emotion as a human experience. Emotions – evoke motion – so clearly they are not a human experience: they are systems evolved for all of life.
I was driven to help people connect with themselves and their emotions from a young age. Whilst there was warmth in my family, there was also distress and I stepped up at a young age to do what I could to help. This became a career and I entered the world of clinical psychology. Forty years earlier, Jaak Panksepp also started a doctorate in clinical psychology. He had been exposed to trauma and emotional distress on a more catastrophic level as a young boy at the end of World War II, and was also astutely connected to the importance of emotions in psychological or emotional distress (or ‘mental health’ problems). Unfortunately, despite an increase in understanding of emotional systems, it has simply not translated into the services and treatments for ‘mental’ and physical health.
Jaak Panksepp chose to abruptly end his doctorate in clinical psychology at the end of his first year, such was his shock at the disparity between the problems people experienced (emotional) and the ‘treatments’ they were given (not focused on emotions). I am forever grateful that he was unable to bear this ethical challenge. Wanting to help people with emotional distress, and being faced with often inhumane physical treatments that do not honour the emotions of the distressed human being, is a dilemma that everyone working in mental health services has faced. It is a royal road to depression for the caring professionals – feeling helpless, and repeating methods that do not work to attempt to bring the person back to their full potential. Jaak turned away from this particular situation, and devoted his life to building a research base, so that future treatments could be based on emotions. This decision was not without its own problems – for instance in gaining access to research grants and the lack of recognition from his academic colleagues – however, he persevered.
Emotional systems and the COVID-19 crisis
Panksepp worked for many decades to find and understand the seven emotional systems that exist across animal species. Panksepp and Biven1 share a detailed description of the research evidence – the science behind the systems that I share here.
Our fundamental emotional system is the seeking system. This monitors and addresses our basic needs (food, shelter, water, oxygen, safety, mates) as well as our more sophisticated needs (learning, challenge, hobbies). This system activates us when our internal or external resources are depleted, as well as when useful resources are near, and moves us to match our state to the task. The details of our personal quests differ between people, species and life forms but all life has their own version of a quest for getting their needs met.
In the weeks before our current lockdown to protect us and our health services from the impact of COVID-19, we saw people’s seeking system working fully activated. They hoarded food in a way that I have never seen, and personally, my interest in investigating the news around this particular issue peaked. These are natural responses to unusual times.
The intensity of the seeking responses needed to be tempered with the activation of the other emotional systems. The seeking response to gather food and information is natural. However, simultaneous activation of all seven emotional systems is needed in a complex society, where individuals have rights, freedoms and responsibilities.
Our own seeking system has evolved to be working in our favour, however the seeking system of others can be dangerous to us. The virus causing COVID-19 is just on the edge of ‘alive’ but for sure it seeks hosts who can enable it to live. So the second problem we can face is danger when the seeking system of others is counter to ours; our ability to distinguish safety from danger is also fundamental to our survival. The safety system is the second emotional system that started forming over half a billion years ago.
The most basic function of emotional systems are to evoke motion, moving towards what we need, like, and love, and away from what endangers us. Hence, it is helpful to consider the on-off or towards-away direction of each system. So despite calling it the safety system because it takes us towards safety, it is the same overall system as our fear system which moves us away from danger – just as the mechanism for taking oxygen in and removing carbon dioxide is part of the same respiratory system. Our safety systems have been alerted to differing levels since January 2020 when the coronavirus epidemic came to light in China. The appropriateness of this fear response needs to be highlighted, in part because it will protect us, and in part because we must normalise this response rather than viewing it as a ‘disorder’. The level of activation of this fear response will be related to our external situation, our level of control, and the impact that COVID-19 may have on our world. There are increasing numbers of voices calling for the systemic factors highlighted so clearly by this pandemic to be honoured, and the focus on individual factors (biological or genetic factors) to be reduced. For social animals, how safe we are is intertwined with our social situation, our group and our social standing. We cannot successfully intervene at an individual level regarding safety, fear or anxiety.
The identification of these systems has been achieved through cross-species research, but it is a pioneering couple, Terry & Beatriz Sheldon, who have shined a light on a way to effectively activate them with a paradigm-shifting psychotherapy: Complex Integration of Multiple Brain Systems. They taught me the importance of emphasising the approach aspect of these systems, a lesson that I have never forgotten. The shift to the approach aspect – what we are moving towards – gives greater clarity about the purpose of these systems.
Hence, we do not have ‘anxiety disorders’, we have alerted safety systems. What danger is present, or has been present, to such an extent that the system is staying in survival mode? So much more to say on that but, for now, can you notice the difference when you approach your emotional experience as an indication of activated emotional systems that are trying to solve problems in your life, whether you are conscious of them or not?
In our world, our need for resources comes with competition. The third problem of competition, resolved by asserting and, when necessary, fighting for what we need, is the job of the assertiveness system. Each of the emotional systems has different levels of intensity. Speaking up with a strong voice will intensify to become anger and rage when our life is threatened or our loved ones, community or way of living are threatened. Furious voices shouting loudly about the way our communities are impacted by decisions, and by the chronic depletion of the NHS, seem to be a healthy response of our individual assertiveness systems. It makes most sense that we work together – more on that coming. My assertiveness system has activated me to start writing this article at 11.30pm, despite my tiredness. I have something to say, and if not now, when?
With our seeking system helping us to investigate what we need to know and find, our safety system staying alert to threats to keep us safe, and our assertiveness system allowing us to fight for what is important, it is our feels good system which tells us about our priorities and what is right for us. Food never tastes as good as it does when you are starving hungry – our ‘feels good’ system makes sure that what we need most feels pretty awesome when it comes along.
My personal COVID-19 story
To highlight these emotional systems with my own personal COVID-19 story, my seeking, assertive and safety systems have been intertwined, focused on four topics, since going into isolation with my family 40 days ago:
- Investigating and integrating information about COVID so I can understand and then act to protect myself and my family;
- Creating a safe, loving, interesting environment for us to live in together as best we can, while retaining strong immune systems, for the coming months;
- Considering ways to protect my clients, trainees, businesses and employees; I could miss something important (funding, for example) and go out of business, just at the time that the world needs emotional connection.
- Considering ways to connect authentically, and to serve. Staying at home is absolutely the right thing to do for me, but I worked for the NHS for many years and train many of its staff, it is part of who I am so I want to serve while staying safe.
And I am monitoring what works and what doesn’t regarding all of this using my feels good system, monitoring rest and recovery periods as well as my need for action and work. There are three other systems that are so much a part of being an animal, and especially a mammal.
Life survived and thrived for millions of years with the four (already mentioned) emotional systems. However, with an environment rich with different species, creative solutions evolved for the problem of how to increase survival rates of offspring via a care system. Clever fish, frogs and lizards started caring for their young in multiple ways that increased their survival so this system started 400 millions of years ago. This system paved the way for our big heads and our long period as a child being dependent on others.
Balancing the support for the young with the impact on the parent goes back hundreds of millions of years – with increased likelihood of parental death being the ultimate sacrifice. This solution of parental care brings with it a new problem: how do parents who care stay safe themselves? Connection systems enable us to work together to support everyone in our clan, and between species. They allow close bonds to be built and maintained, help us act to repair connections when they are breaking, and grieve when they are gone. Connection systems are within us (neurochemicals like oxytocin and particular parts of our brain) and they are between us (like the impact of being in a supportive team, or being a twin), going way beyond our current scientific understanding, but not beyond our recognition of connection when we feel it or see it.
And the final of these seven systems? With so much to learn, so little time, the speed at which we and our offspring learn is life and death. We have super-fast unconscious mechanisms to help us learn when we face actual danger – our safety system sorts that out. We have a system that helps us learn to deal with challenges consciously too, as it is those who have readied themselves for the challenges that life will throw at them before it happens that survive. Nature did a beautiful thing to help this along, she made it fun. To help us achieve expertise, nature’s solution is the most powerful learning tool of all: the play system.
So finally, to highlight all seven emotional systems with my own personal COVID-19 story: My safety, assertiveness and care systems are working hard to protect my husband, who has a severe lung disorder, from the virus. I am alert to the dangers and taking my safety system seriously by acting on what my curious seeking system has guided me to learn and find. Mostly, I only need to communicate the power of my care system to help my children respond effectively, but sometimes we activate their safety system too, actively alerting them to the dangers. Sometimes, we need to use strong voices to communicate using our assertiveness systems. They witness our care, safety and assertiveness systems in our rituals and responses.
We have care and connection systems rituals with affection and closeness in the morning and bedtimes especially – welcoming them into the day and soothing and helping them feel safe at night. This has been one of the hardest challenges in the early stages for us; staying physically distant caused a lot of distress, with our fear systems wanting calming with oxytocin and GABA emitting cuddles. However, closeness did not feel safe for the first two weeks in isolation, such is the nature of our times.
Seeking systems need to seek, play systems need to play – we have emphasised the importance of learning and being productive – only for the sake of these systems, not their education, not at this time. Activating all these systems to enable us to approach what is important activates our feels good system over and over again. Social media also activates this system, but of course, it lacks complexity. It is all seven emotional systems, simultaneously activated, that brings the fuel and power of the emotional systems most to life and protects us from the damaging impact of one or two systems overriding the others. An assertive seeking system not balanced with safety, care and connection takes the last 100 toilet rolls from the store or climbs Snowdon amid the current crisis. Instead, aiming for simultaneous activation, my personal aim is for each system to be considered and integrated alongside the other six.
Live with curiosity, wonder and awe (seeking), balancing safety and learning through play, sharing what is important to you (feels good) assertively whilst simultaneously caring for and authentically connecting with yourself, others and your world.
Even in these times, especially in these times, we need to aim for this more than ever.
- Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. New York, NY W. W. Norton & Company. ↩