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The exciting ride of the Drive System

In the area of Psychology, understanding human emotions and the way we regulate them is a complex and fascinating journey. In this regard, Paul Gilbert's theory of the Three Systems for Emotion Regulation is a valuable framework that sheds light on how our emotions are managed and expressed. In this article, we'll explore the "Drive System" which is responsible for our exploration ability, pursuit of pleasure, reward and motivation. Moreover, we also explore the importance of being aware of the potential dangers that lie in the hyperactivation of this system for short-term pleasure-seeking.

The Drive System: What is it?

Paul Gilbert's theory posits that there are three primary emotion regulation systems within us: the Threat System, the Soothing System, and the Drive System. The Drive System is the one that drives us towards our goals and desires - a motivational system - in order to prosper and/or survive. When this system is activated, we can experience feelings of excitement, fun, motivation, and pleasure, activating positive emotions linked to forms of seeking out and acquiring resources.

The Neurotransmission of Dopamine: Fueling the Drive System

Dopamine, often referred to as the "feel good" neurotransmitter, plays an important role in the activation of the Drive System. This chemical messenger is a “reward chemical” responsible for the feelings of pleasure whenever we achieve something that we set out to achieve. When we engage in activities that align with our goals and desires, such as achieving a work-related milestone or enjoying a delicious meal, our brain's dopamine system is activated. This release of dopamine reinforces the behavior, motivating us to continue pursuing pleasurable experiences and valuable resources.

What does the activation of this system look like in our daily lives?

  1. Work and ambition: Think about that rush of energy and excitement you feel when you're about to start a new project at work, launch a new business, or tackle a challenging task.

  2. Eating and pleasure: Our Drive System also plays a significant role in our eating habits. Are you familiar with that feeling of craving a slice of decadent chocolate cake or a well-cooked meal? This is a manifestation of the system's desire for pleasurable experiences, with dopamine reinforcing the pleasure associated with these activities.

From the quest to secure food, shelter, comfort and territory to the quest for social ranking, success and status, competitiveness, anticipation (or engagement) of highly valued pleasurable events such as consuming high calorie foods and other forms of stimulation (e.g., video games, scrolling on social media, gambling, pornography, drugs, etc.), the drive system is associated with the anticipation of a positive outcome, accomplishment - “getting things done”; “doing more”; “having more”.

When something really big and excessively exciting happens the activation of this positive emotion system can also be excessive. For example, if we won the lottery tomorrow, probably we would struggle to control the dopaminergic bodily response and would find it difficult to sleep for a few days and not have intrusive thoughts and flashes of excitement about being very very rich all of a sudden.

Dangers of Overusing the Drive System for Short-term Pleasure-seeking:

When in balance with the other two systems, the drive system provides us with the important ability to explore and feel motivated in the pursuit of important life goals and needs. However, in the presence of an imbalance and at the extreme activation of the drive system we can experience emotional dysregulation and psychological distress, namely:

  1. Burnout: The hyper-activation of the drive system often also leads people to overcompensate for feeling bad about themselves which can lead them to pursue achievement in unrealistic, rigid and unrelenting ways.

  2. Impulsivity: Overusing the Drive System without considering the long-term consequences can lead to impulsive decision-making. People may prioritize immediate satisfaction over future goals and well-being, potentially leading to regret.

  3. Addiction: The Drive System, with its dopamine-driven reinforcement of pleasure, can make short-term pleasures highly rewarding, increasing the risk of addiction. Whether it's substance abuse, compulsive shopping, or excessive gambling, these behaviors can become problematic when driven solely by the pursuit of pleasure.

  4. Neglect of other systems: Overreliance on the Drive System can overshadow the Soothing and Threat Systems, which are crucial for emotional balance. Neglecting these systems can result in difficulties in coping with stress and regulating emotions effectively.

Balancing act

The emotions associated with energizing, exploring for, obtaining resources are usually experienced as positive and energizing so we can continue our quest for survival and well-being. However, as noted before, there can be problems with the hyperactivation of this system. In individuals who are highly focused on competitive resource-seeking there can be a desire to constantly stimulate these “activation emotions” - to get “buzz” or “feel good” feelings repeatedly and mainly from “doing and achieving”. This “must have, must do, must be” never-ending cycle is making people collapse and experience a burnout condition, and thereby increasing risk of mental health problems.

To find harmony and well-being, we must strike a balance between the three emotional regulation systems. Mainly, the activation of the soothing system can help us to regulate the drive and threat system by enabling states of peacefulness, connection and calmness. If we feel distressed, the care, kindness, and support of others we like or love helps to find coping strategies to regulate emotional dysregulation. The more we understand these processes of the mind the more we are able to stand back and explore ways to manage the potentials in our evolved brains’ and find coping strategies to protect our health.

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