All humans are driven to seek out 3 basic things: safety, connection, and comfort. Our default brain settings are oriented to find ways to guarantee those basics for us in every moment…and steer us away from things that can threaten access to them.
How does this work?
Brain senses something that could harm us --> brain says avoid it or eliminate it
“Run away from that snake!”
Brain senses something that jeopardizes our connection to other(s) or could get us mistreated or rejected --> brain tries to steer us away from it
“If you don’t call your friend back, they will be mad at you...”
Brain senses that something looks hard & uncomfortable --> brain says evade it or find an easier option
“Watching that show looks easier than doing those chores...”
These primal defaults operate in us all the time. When your brain perceives a threat to your safety, connection, or comfort, it sends an alert to the emotions department in your brain. Suddenly you feel something like fear or anger to help you get focused on taking some sort of action about that possible threat. Each of our 10 main emotions have a very specific survival purpose, which you can read about here if you're curious to know more.
The thing is…we can’t always trust the accuracy of these emotions. Emotions are on such high alert to protect us that they can be a little overly sensitive to potential threats. Sometimes, in an effort to protect us from harm, our brains don’t interpret things very accurately. In other words, a possible threat is not an actual threat.
Note that the interpretation of possible threats varies widely from person to person. Our reactions are greatly influenced by our attachment experiences. The way our caregivers treat (or mistreat) us when we are young impacts the way we interpret situations and the actions of others later in life.
Growing up, if we often experienced threats to (or inconsistency with) our sense of safety, connection, and comfort, we will continue to be on high alert for threats to these basic needs in adulthood.
So why does all this matter?
Any perceived threat is directly linked to an emotional response, which is then linked to a behavioral reaction.
If we can identify the perceived threat, we can better manage the emotion by getting our needs met. Unlike during our childhood years, we have more capacity to identify our needs in adulthood. As adults we are increasingly able and likely to get our needs met…reducing our emotional reactions.
Being able to identify emotional needs means being able to check in with yourself at any given moment and do a quick assessment:
What am I feeling?
Do I sense a threat to my safety, connections, or comfort?
What is the actual threat?
What do I need here?
Most of us are not used to checking in with ourselves regularly throughout the day, let alone being able to do it when emotionally escalated. It’s a skill to hone, and understanding the physical sensations of emotions as well as regular use of mindfulness can help with this.
You’ve probably noticed that the 3 categories of safety, connection and comfort are very broad. We all have our own definitions of these, based on our upbringing, our genetics and our personality. But let’s flesh them out just a bit:
#1 Need: Sense of Safety
Feeling of physical safety
Feeling emotionally safe, that you won’t be mistreated or belittled
Feeling secure in the ability to access basic needs for survival (like food, water, shelter, finances)
Feeling of certainty or predictability
Feeling of control over decisions, time, actions
Feeling of independence or autonomy
Examples of threats to safety:
When Abby talks to her mother, her mother often criticizes her choices and makes statements that leave Abby feeling emotionally beaten up inside. She feels a sense of shame and anger. She also feels an urge to avoid calls from her mother and sometimes doesn’t answer the phone.
Threat to emotional safety, to sense of independence.
Jason’s wife is frequently inattentive to the time and can make them late to events. He then feels a lack of control over the schedule and feelings of intense anxiety & frustration. He’s starting to think that he would rather just not attend things together if they are going to be late every time.
Threat to sense of control over decisions, time, autonomy, certainty.
Bree is in the passenger seat while her friend drives them to the park for a hike. Traffic is heavy and her friend is chatting away with little attention to the road. Bree is starting to tighten up, her skin is crawling and she is gripping her seat with fervor. She just wants to get to the park and get out of the car already. Threat to sense of control, predictability, autonomy.
Note the desire to pull away or escape – a common sign of a threat to safety.
How to handle a threat to safety:
leave or limit exposure to the situation or person
ask for specific changes from others
reach out for resources from trusted others to increase a sense of safety
create or get back into a routine you can control
create order in your living space or life
carve out time or a space away from others to increase autonomy.
#2 Need: Sense of Connection
Feeling of closeness with someone, something, or yourself
Feeling significant or important to others
Feeling that you matter
Feeling unique, special or needed
Feeling important or prioritized
Feeling of acceptance, belonging
Feeling part of something bigger
Feeling that you contribute to and support others or a community
Examples of threats to connection:
Jamie’s best friend has canceled their last several outings at the last minute. Jamie is feeling sad and fearful that the friendship is not what it used to be. Jamie can’t stop worrying about what’s going on and how to fix it because this relationship has been so meaningful and grounding for nearly 8 years.
Threat to sense of significance, mattering, importance, priority
Franco is agitated about the situation at work. No one seems to appreciate how hard he is working or how much effort he puts in compared to other people. His boss barely notices him, doesn’t make time to answer questions or give direction, and never seems to hold his peers accountable for dropping the ball all the time.
Threat to sense of significance, specialness, support, priority, contribution
Alma is feeling low. It seems like everyone else has something unique about them – a talent, a personality trait, a hobby, a meaningful career. She just feels so ordinary. Alma looks at her dull life of going to work, eating, sleeping, and watching TV and she feels useless.
Threat to sense of closeness with anything, of uniqueness, of mattering, of contribution
Note the sense of craving for more – a common sign of a threat to connection.
How to handle a perceived threat to connection:
ask for closeness (spending time, getting a hug, getting a compliment)
reach out to someone you care about
tap into your community (spiritual, activism, hobby)
take a step to create or join a community
ask for the reassurance or the ‘pats on the back’ you need
tell caring others when you need support
find a way to help or support another person
#3 Need: Sense of Comfort
Feeling able to avoid painful experiences & emotions
Feeling able to gain pleasurable experiences & emotions
Feeling able to access a sense of calm or neutrality
Feeling able to avoid unwanted experiences like difficulty, boredom, monotony, meaninglessness, negative change
Feeling able to gain wanted experiences like growth, adventure, interest, spontaneity, fun, creativity, positive change
Feeling okay in your body (rested, nourished, healthy, capable)
Examples of threats to comfort:
Helena is incredibly stressed and can’t stop stewing about the conversation with her staff member. She’s worried this situation will keep her up all night and just wants to relax and feel better. Helena knows a glass of wine or two will take the edge off and quiet these unwanted thoughts & emotions.
Threat to ability to avoid painful emotions, to experience calm.
Jerry feels stir-crazy again. This is his third job in 5 years but he’s just so bored. He sees other jobs online that look so much more intriguing. Also he’s thinking he could start his own business, or maybe move to a different state. Then he starts thinking maybe going back to school would be better?
Threat to ability to experience growth & change & stimulation; threat to ability to avoid boredom and meaninglessness.
Bev sees the dirty dishes and the piles of clothes to wash and the litter box that needs cleaning and feels so annoyed. Her husband must see this stuff too – why doesn’t he help? He knows how anxious she feels when the house is a mess. She just wants to come home once and get to feel able to relax after a long day.
Threat to sense of calm, access to positive emotions; threat to ability to avoid negative emotions
Notice the desire to avoid or change - common signs of a threat to comfort.
How to handle a perceived threat to comfort:
do something soothing for your body or psyche
engage in something that brings laughter (this activates brain’s reward system & releases endorphins)
if the experience is necessary but painful, do it in very small steps
engage yourself in something novel or stimulating
get back into your routine (more comfort)
change your routine (less boredom)
give yourself something on the horizon to look forward to (activity, trip)
reach out to a person or pet for some positive interaction
assess whether a painful experience is helpful for your goals
When we feel intense emotions, it’s because we are perceiving a threat to one or all of these 3 core human needs – safety, connection and comfort.
If you start pausing to go inward and identify what feels under threat, you can learn to attend to it and meet your needs. With some practice, you will find yourself being less emotionally escalated. You'll start to feel more empowered and in control of your internal experience.
If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.