Running from Threat to Drive to Safety Mode

Compassion focussed therapy posits that there are three types of emotional regulatory systems in our minds and bodies: the drive/excite/vitality mode (wanting, pursuing achieving), the content/safe/connected mode (soothing), and the threat focussed mode (protection and safety seeking). Last week when I went for a run I think I experienced all three.

It was a breezy cold day with a wonderful blue sky. I had intended this run to be slow and long, to gently ease myself into the flow of running, to relax in the moment and to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells around me. Well, 40 minutes into the run my peace was shattered.

Another runner came out of her house at the exact moment that I was running past, and she began to run quickly behind me. I knew that there was only one direction for both of us to go because that was the most beautiful direction to go in. I could hear her footsteps behind me and I could see her shadow next to me, and at that moment my body went into threat focused mode. I felt that she had entered my personal space and I felt indignant that she didn’t wait and create more of a distance between us before moving off.   I speeded up to a ridiculously fast pace given that I still had a long way to run, and I maintained this pace until I could no longer hear her steps or see her shadow. I had an enormous desire to out-run this lady, to be somewhere else away from her, and my brain temporarily shut down as I put all my efforts into running as quickly as possible. I guess looking back I can be grateful to experiencing my bodily threat focused mode, because this meant that I ran at a rate much faster than I thought I was ever capable of.

Then something changed. My mind and body switched from threat to drive and excitement mode. I began to enjoy the fast pace and the challenges to running quickly into a head-on wind that was blowing around 50 mph at times. I started to feel liberated and free, at one with the wild nature that engulfed me. I forgot about the female runner that was somewhere behind me and I just started to enjoy myself, no longer concerned about where she was or what pace she was doing. I appreciated being in this achieving mode, and could see all the benefits that come from this regulatory system that is about striving and drive. I felt excited when I came across the local Park Run, and smiled at the people standing on the finish line clapping the finishing runners. I was happy to weave in and around the runners, and decided to run all the way around an old church just for the fun of it.

Arriving back home, after having washed and changed, my body went into self-soothing mode. All these wonderful endorphins were released in my body and I felt content and secure. I felt like I did not need anything to be happy, that I could just be. This is the wonder of running, its effects on stimulating the safe mode in our minds and bodies. I felt content and at ease with myself, with other people and with the World around me despite the violence that exists on our chaotic planet. During this run I had experienced something much bigger than myself, an evolutionary bio-physical miracle dating back millennia.

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