The three circles model is a theory proposed by Paul Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derby and founder of The Compassionate Mind Foundation. This model is central to Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and aims to simplify the complexity of the brain’s systems and mechanisms.
It suggests the existence of three different systems that need to be in balance to have a healthy life. If we spend too much time in one or another of them, the balance is broken, and we become distressed. Becoming aware of this helps us to recognise what changes we have to make to restore the balance. Below we explain each of these systems.
Threat and self-protection system
The function of this system is to quickly identify potential dangers for us or our loved ones and react to them to ensure survival. After recognising a threat in the environment, this system triggers feelings of anxiety, anger, or disgust, that urge us to take action against the potential danger of self-defend. It initiates the flight, fight, freeze mode that pushes us to leave the situation, stay and act, or paralyse us and stop us from doing things. In addition to the feelings of anxiety, anger, or disgust, the system initiates a series of physical reactions that, sometimes, are the first thing we notice, even before the feeling. Sensations such as chest tightness, shallow breathing, heart racing or nausea can strongly signal the existence of danger.
The emotions and physical sensations evoked by this system can be unpleasant (e.g., anxiety, stomach pain) but it is a system designed to protect us. Although in the present days its function might not be so crucial, as life-or-dead threats are not so common, in the past it played a key role in survival. Our ancestors benefited from this system, as it allowed them to quickly detect threats (e.g., a lion or another dangerous animal) and do something to protect themselves. It was so important at the time, that our brain gives priority to dealing with threats over enjoyable things.
When it comes to potential threats, our brains don’t think too much and work from a better safe than sorry principle. In case of doubt, when we don’t know whether something is dangerous or not, it is better to trigger the flight, fight or freeze response and do something to protect us. For example, when our ancestors were outside of their caves and heard a noise around, their brains would not wait to confirm whether that is a lion or a bird and would, they would just run away, just in case. That means that in many instances, we are triggered by a non-threatening stimulus, but in case of doubt, our brains prefer us to act so we can survive.
The brain has designed such an effective flight, fight or freeze mechanism that before we have time to analyse logically the danger, we have already acted upon the potential risk. This is because there is a brain pathway that can make us feel anxious and fearful instantly before we can even have time to think about what is going on. And this sudden and high fear is what motivates us to act.
As Gilbert puts it, our brains are designed to be better safe than sorry, which means it is designed to make mistakes and not be rational. As a result, we can get anxious or angry pretty quickly without being able to stop it. It is just how we are hardwired. As such, Gilbert suggests that, although it can cause us serious problems, it is better to talk about over-eager or over-developed protection systems, rather than saying that there is something wrong with us.
Drive and resource-seeking system
Led by a substance in our brain called dopamine, this system’s main function is to motivate us to pursue and achieve things. Dopamine is known as the motivation molecule because its production drives us to pursue things and resources we need to survive.
Dopamine is not related to the pleasant feeling we get when we obtain something, but with the drive to go after that thing. It is the movement, the action, and the motivation to seek things (e.g., a new job, buying a car, food, etc.).
Although this system is adaptative and when balanced with the other two systems it helps us with the drive and passion that we need to achieve things, this excitement system can get out of balance and over-excited. People that consume certain drugs produce too much dopamine, overstimulating the system and suffering from bad comedowns later. People with bipolar disorder have similar problems because the production of dopamine is too high during manic episodes.
This system can also dysregulate without drugs or any disorder, and make us seek more and more all the time, never having enough, and making us feel frustrated, disappointed, and never satisfied. The drive system can trigger the threat system when goals are frustrating and not met for some reason, producing anxiety, frustration, or anger.
Soothing and contentment system
When animals don’t need to self-protect from potential dangers, seek any resource or achieve anything, they can calm down and be content. The soothing system restores balance and allows us to soothe and feel calm and inner peace. When we are working from this soothing system, we feel contentment, that is a way of happiness, a feeling of safeness, the lack of threat or the need to pursue anything.
Gilbert proposes that this system is linked with kindness and affection. For instance, when a baby is upset, the love of mum or dad brings peace to the child. The love and care of others can soothe us and makes us feel safe and at peace. The brain pathways involved in the soothing from kindness are similar to the feelings linked to contentment.
Endorphins are a substance in the brain that can produce a calming sense of well-being and they are also released when we experience kindness. The hormone oxytocin also generates a sense of well-being, coming from love and connection to others.
What is the main takeaway from this model?
Sometimes people become distressed because their brains are most of the time working from the drive or threat systems, and very little time from the soothing system. When this happens, the way to recover the balance is to spend more time in the soothing system.
This can be achieved in different ways:
- Seek connection from others.
- Self-care, do something for yourself.
- Diaphragmatic breading.
- Be in nature.
- Whatever activity brings you peace and calmness.
The first step is to become aware that you are spending too much time in the other two systems, and then stop. Stop and take care of yourself with activities that can reduce the sense of threat and need to achieve things.
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