June 2017 Tool of the Month: Four Emotion Systems Handout

Four Emotion Systems: Flexibility is key!

In our work with clients who tend to be highly self-critical and shame-prone, one of the first things we seek to do is to create a deblaming platform for understanding how the person has come to operate the way they do in the world. It’s important that client (and therapist alike!) understand that even though certain behaviors or tendencies might be contributing to someone’s suffering now, these things likely evolved for very understandable and important reasons.

Part of creating a deblaming platform

One of the ways we help create this deblaming platform is by talking about the different emotion systems that we humans have evolved over millennia. Although there are different ways of parsing these things up, neuroscientists generally agree that there are at least four basic emotion systems that influence how we perceive and respond to the world and manage our emotional states: 1. The Threat System, 2. The Drive/Reward System, 3. The Social Safety System, and 4. The Overwhelm/Shut Down System. These four emotion systems are associated with their own unique thoughts, emotions, motivations, and even different parts of the brain. And it seems that these different emotion systems tend to be relatively distinct from one another-- generally, when one of these systems is turned on, then the other systems tend to be turned off.

Our brains seem to be “hard wired” to interpret cues differently based on these four emotion systems.

  • When the reward system is activated, our brain has interpreted a cue to mean that something gratifying or pleasurable is available or potentially available

  • When the threat system is activated, our brain has interpreted a cue to mean that something dangerous or damaging might happen

  • When the social safety system is activated, our brain has interpreted a cue to mean that we are safe, loved, fulfilled, protected, or otherwise part of a tribe and it’s safe to relax

  • When the overwhelm system is activated, our brain has interpreted a cue to mean that our life is in imminent danger and our body shuts down


The first two emotion systems (reward and threat) alert and arouse the body. They do things like make your heart race, your pupils dilate, your breathing speed up, or your digestion shut down. The other two emotion systems (social safety and overwhelm) make the body slow down, rest, or become quiet. Your heart rate slows, your pupils shrink, your breath slows down, and your digestion starts to work.

What this research shows is that rest, quiet, digestion, connection, and relaxation are not simply the reduction of the threat and reward systems - there is actually another system that needs to turn on!

Don’t make emotions into another enemy

It’s important to recognize that none of these systems is “good” or “bad”; they all serve important functions. So, in order for us to be responsive to all the events that happen in our lives, we need both systems to be active and flexible. Otherwise, we can get stuck in chronic hyperarousal, with our body being unable to slow down and rest. Or we can get stuck in chronic shut down mode and be nonresponsive to what’s happening around us.

Individuals who are highly self-critical or shame-prone tend to have highly developed threat and reward systems. They tend to spend most of their time going between these two systems; seeking pleasure/achievement or responding to and trying to protect themselves from perceived threat. However, they often have difficulty accessing their social safety system and spend little time in that system’s “tend and befriend” functions.

A key focus in our group is to help our clients understand and appreciate the important functions of all of the four emotion systems and then teach them ways to strengthen their access to their social safety system through both interpersonal strategies (e.g. sharing with others, effective social signaling, etc.) and intrapersonal strategies (e.g. lovingkindness meditation, self-compassion, etc.).

Below is the handout we created for our clients on the four emotion systems. Feel free to use it with the folks that you work with as well. We hope it’s useful to you and those you serve.

How we use this handout

We use this handout with clients by walking through the handout together, reviewing each of the four emotion systems in turn, discussing how each one works works, as well as how it applies to the client.

In particular, we highlight how self-criticism tends to feed the threat system, for some people keeping them in a state where it is turned on nearly all the time.

We discuss how some people have learned to compensate for feelings of unworthiness by achieving and getting things done, and thereby spending a lot of time with their reward system turned on. The problem is that they can get stuck in alternating back-and-forth between threat and reward, with little time to rest and recover their flexibility.

We talk about how shame can sometimes be overwhelming and trigger the emergency shut down system. People who frequently experience overwhelming shame can easily identify with the sense of confusion, inability to respond, numbness, or detachment that is associated with the activation of the overwhelm system. We discuss how overwhelming shame is usually linked to past experiences of trauma and can also go along with dissociation.

Finally, we explain how the social safety system tends to be underactivated in high self-critics and how techniques like lovingkindness meditation can help strengthen this system so that it is more available when needed.  This is usually how we then proceed into introducing lovingkindness meditation as a primary intervention.

If this review is done in a group, this is usually followed by people sharing the cues that elicit social safety in them. This tends to foster a sense of shared commonality in the group, activate many attendees’ social safety systems as it is talked about, and can also help people identify cues that might elicit their social safety system through hearing the experiences of others.

Four Emotions Systems Handout (right-click to download)


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  • Interesting. Thanks. It looks like this is based on CFT, but where is the 4th system derived from? I know this isn’t a formal or academic post, but perhaps some further referneces would help us all explore your good work. Thanks! See you in Sevilla! Love, DT