Our emotional regulation systems —
How to stop running on fear

Joachim Stempfle

Modern life tends to overstimulate the threat system, blocking important personal and systems transformations. Fortunately, nature is an ingenious designer that has blessed us with an antidote – the bonding system.

“The challenge here is to recognize
the importance of kindness and affection
and place them at the center of our relationship with ourselves,
with others and with the world”
Paul Gilbert

A couple of months back, we started to work with an organization that wanted to move from a traditional functional-hierarchical structure into a customer-focused team setup. We successfully convinced senior leaders not to hash out the new organization behind closed doors, but instead involve the whole organization into a collective co-creation process. The first workshop that also included the team leaders of the organization brought out quite a few emotions – while some leaders embraced the opportunity to co-create, others pushed back fiercely, voicing the expectation that senior leadership should simply decide on the changes and let them know what they were expected to do.

Anyone who is involved in transformation work can probably recall similar situations. Whenever we are asked to make a change, emotions are triggered. Any transformation is at heart a deeply emotional journey, and we are all dancing on the narrow line between hope and fear.

The work of neuropsychologists and psychotherapists* can teach us a lot about how we are wired, and what that means for working with teams and organizations during times of transformation.

The threat (or self-protection) system

Human brains are wired to help us survive, not to make us happy. Ever since humankind evolved, our top priority was to stay alive. That is why our oldest and most deeply rooted emotional regulation system is the threat system. It automatically kicks in when we face a threat, and it is accompanied by emotions like anxiety, anger, or fear. We share the threat system with all other animals on this planet, as well as the three basic response strategies – fight, flight, or freeze. When we attack each other, or when we silently withdraw, we are trying to protect ourselves from threat.

As humans, we are able to respond not only to actual threats, but also to imagined future threats. Our ability to think ahead and anticipate enables us to worry about all kind of things that animals could not worry about – our status, our career, our mortgage, our financial security… And soon enough we find our mind occupied trying to find ways to deal with threats that may or may not become real. In today’s environment, where change is common and uncertainty is a given, the threat system is constantly overstimulated. And our desire to stay safe may keep us so occupied that we are not even able to ask ourselves what is really important to us.

The bonding system

There is an antidote to these instinctual responses to threat, and it has everything to do with how we connect and relate to others. It is the bonding system: an emotional regulation system that is primarily seen in mammals, and which dates back to the evolutionary advantage of parents caring for their offspring.

For us humans, the bonding system offers protection against threat, and the ability to pool resources. Connecting with each other is the antidote to stress for humans: That is why neuropsychologists call the bonding system the “go to” system against threat. We can deal with uncertainty and change a lot better when we can trust others. On a neuropsychological level, experiencing trust and care dampens the activation of the threat system. Neuropsychologist Stephen Porges, in his groundbreaking work, has shown that when we see trust and care in the face of another, we instinctively understand that we are safe and our brain reduces the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with fight/flight reactions.

The curiosity system

When we feel safe, we eventually get bored. And when we get bored, we start to explore. This inner drive to be curious, explore, and create things is characteristic of humans. Neuropsychologists argue that the original goal of the curiosity system was to secure resources, which was crucial for humans who grew up in a hunter / gatherer environment. However, our curiosity has taken us to unprecedented levels of human ingenuity.

Still, too often we forget that many of the innovations we rely on today have been the result of sharing knowledge and ideas over time. Once again, it is all about human connectivity.

Take Thomas Edison, who is widely understood to be America’s greatest inventor. Edison has often been painted as a lone wolf in our collective memory — when in fact, he was a pioneer of scientific teamwork, who established the first industrial research laboratory in modern history.

We tend to over-emphasize individual achievements and overlook that performance and success are shared endeavors. This individual bias is one of the greatest barriers we must overcome, especially in Western societies.

So what?

Understanding how we are wired as humans provides important insights for working with teams in a transformational context.

Many leaders, including myself, have internalized the belief that ultimately, we are on our own, and when we are under pressure, we must turn inwards and solve our challenges alone. This survival strategy is often a result of not having received adequate support during our upbringing, when we were confronted with critical threats. While this survival strategy has enabled us to develop independent thinking and resourcefulness, it leaves us vulnerable to stress. Those of us who feel that we are on our own must learn to reach out to others during our darkest moments.

I was recently coaching a leader who is currently under a lot of pressure. Although this leader has many relationships, he shared that he felt completely alone from within. During the conversation, he realized that he is alone by his own choice; by choosing not to open up and share his vulnerabilities and fears with anyone, he made it difficult for himself to receive compassion and support from others. This leader took the courageous step to reach out to a person whom he trusts and have an open conversation.

When working with teams, it is crucial to FIRST deactivate the threat system and stimulate the bonding system. In one team with whom we worked, a leader openly shared, “We are all just trying to save our asses here”. When people are running on fear and watching their backs, most of their energy is taken up by self-protective behaviors. It’s hard to build a creative new strategy or make courageous decisions in an environment like that. In our work with teams, we therefore always start by building deep connections and trust. When people are given time to connect, share their experiences and emotions, and show empathy and compassion towards one another, the conversation turns. It is amazing to see what can be accomplished once people are operating from a point of compassion towards one another.

The biggest lesson to take from neuropsychology is that as humans, we can only live in relation to others. Relationships where we experience trust and compassion enable us to let our guard down. Once that happens, our collective creativity comes out. It is the trust of others that gives us the air to breathe, and the wings to fly.

(written with the support of Inés Escobar Borruel)

* For a deeper dive into the neuropsychology of human emotions, we recommend the work of Stephen Porges, Robert Sapolsky and Paul Gilbert. We have drawn heavily from their work for this article.