To Improve Mental Wellbeing, Stop Defending.
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Wiser Working CORE Model
The Wiser Working CORE model (Continuous Optimisation of Resilience & Energy) explains how the human autonomic nervous system continually shifts across three different modes; Defend, Achieve and Nurture. Understanding this model can play an important role in building your resilience and improve your mental wellbeing.
In the Defend mode, we are primed to move away from (or attack) something we feel threatened by. This could be a difficult customer, a fellow road user or a life-threatening situation. Our Defend response is also known as ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ and its main job is to keep us alive. It is therefore fast acting and can create a strong emotional response in us to prompt action. We know we are in Defend mode when we feel anxious, angry, frustrated or even lonely.
In the Achieve mode, we are motivated and energised to have something we want. The reward centre of our brain is actively anticipating a dopamine hit. These achievements can help us to feel like we are growing but they can be addictive. We may also be wanting the approval or gratification of others. We know when we are in Achieve mode when we feel excited and focused (and sometimes competitive).
Both Defend and Achieve modes engage our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). If our bodies were a car, the SNS could be compared to the accelerator pedal. As such, these modes consume our energy.
Nurture mode, on the other hand is a Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) response. It calms us down and allows us to restore our energy. Using the car analogy, this would be our brake pedal. When we have good quality sleep, our PNS is dominant, but it is not only reserved for sleep. The Nurture mode is associated with feelings of calm and connection.
What does 'Good' look like?
Getting the right balance between the SNS and PNS is key to building resilience and maintaining good energy.
In an ideal world we would be alternating mainly between the Achieve mode (spending energy on the things we need and want) and the Nurture mode. Our lives can become more like a series of sprints, rather than a marathon. This is how high performers operate. Perhaps they have naturally good resilience or maybe they have done some personal growth to get there.
However, for most people, the pesky Defend system gets in the way. There are of course times when we need to defend ourselves against real threats but modern life has a way of over-engaging the Defend mode. We can easily get caught up in patterns that could best be described as stressful. One of the major downsides of being human is that our cognitive brain is often imagining threats that aren’t happening or will not happen. We spend many ‘mind miles’ in such imaginings.
"I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened."
- Mark Twain
How to reduce Defend mode
There are many cognitive techniques and therapies that are designed to help us improve our thinking and reframe our reality. These can help to reduce worry, anger and sadness. It is difficult however, for these techniques to be sustainable if our nervous system is chronically out of balance.
If we are in Defend (or Achieve) mode for too long, we get tired and lose perspective. We need sufficient nurture not only to rebalance our body but to open our hearts and minds. After good periods of nurture we worry less, become less argumentative and less self-critical.
Many of us can relate to the feeling of being completely refreshed after a long vacation. We can easily tackle problems that previously seemed too difficult. This is a good example of how the CORE model works and is necessary for good mental wellbeing.
Whilst we cannot take long breaks all the time, we can design our lives to take short breaks on a daily basis. Our breaks can consist of naps, meditation, positive conversations with loved ones, hobbies and time spent in nature.
Most of these things don’t cost anything but the returns are immeasurable. High performers know this and they put great value on their recovery time.