Triple response system model: what it is, parts and features

Anxiety and other emotions don’t just show up in our mind. In addition to catastrophic thoughts and emotional distress, anxiety makes us feel tics, breathe faster, make our heart beat faster, and even cause us to suffer from indigestion.

There are three types of responses that manifest through emotions: cognitive, behavioral and physiological. These three dimensions relate to anxiety, but they don’t have to go together.

The triple response system is an already classic model which emphasizes these three dimensions related to emotions, paying attention to the behavior and the organism of the patient without ignoring their processes at the psychological level. Let’s see this in more detail below.

    What is the triple response system?

    The triple response system is a three-dimensional theory of anxiety developed by psychologist Peter Lang in 1968. This theory, also called Lang’s model in honor of its author, is three-dimensional in that it evaluates three types of responses related to anxiety: cognitive, behavioral and physiological. Before this model was conceptualized, it was believed that emotions and other psychological processes were always internal in nature, that is, they only happened mentally or cognitively.

    However, with the advent of the Lang model The idea has spread that in order to tackle a problem, especially anxiety disorders, both the internal aspects and the patient’s thinking must be evaluated.In addition to what your body reflects both physiologically and behaviorally, this is the basic idea of ​​the triple response system. In addition, it is argued that, although related, some responses do not necessarily have to go to each other, i.e. cognitive, behavioral and physiological spheres do not manifest with the same intensity. .

    Main premise of the model

    The triple response system theory finds its origins in the observations of Peter Lang when he treated patients with systematic desensitization phobias. This psychologist observed that his patients’ responses contradicted the one-dimensional model of emotion., A theoretical hypothesis prevalent in the 1960s. The one-dimensional model argued that cognitive, behavioral and physiological measures were correlated with emotional problems such as anxiety, and that if a change occurs in any of these measures, it will also occur in the other two.

    However, Lang’s clinical experience suggests rather the opposite, as he saw that there were certain discrepancies between these three types of response when presenting a case of anxiety, and also in other psychological problems. related to emotions. There was a triple response system, i.e. the cognitive, physiological and behavioral components of the patient did not have to be correlated with each other, although they were related to the main problem of anxiety. In other words, there could be a different intensity in the manifestation of the responses.

    System components

    As we have indicated, Lang’s model argues that three different levels of responses can be observed to anxiety: cognitive, physiological and motor. These three typologies do not necessarily have to be linked or interdependent and, at the same time, their intensity, perception, duration and time of onset vary depending on the patient. This is due to the presence and influence of stimuli, both internal and external to the patient, in addition to the type of stimulus that triggers the response and, of course, the individual’s own characteristics (individual differences).

    1. Cognitive response

    In Lang’s model, we are talking about a cognitive response to the set of thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind of the individual in the presence of the stimulus that causes anxiety. On the side of feelings, we can speak of fear, worry or fear. As for the thoughts part, to name a few, we have exaggerate the scale of the perceived threat, imagine the worst possible scenarios, anticipate that something catastrophic will happen …

    All of this can lead to feelings such as insecurity, feeling out of control, negative thoughts about yourself such as low self-esteem and reduced self-esteem, inability to make decisions , difficulty concentrating, and fear that others will realize that you are feeling profound discomfort or that you are suffering from anxiety.

    2. Motor or behavioral response

    The motor or behavioral response refers to movements or actions performed by the patient when feeling anxious. This type of response is divided into two types: direct responses and indirect responses.

    2.1. direct responses

    We refer to direct motor responses as those which they are directly observable but involuntary. In this type of response we find tremors, tingling, tics, general motor restlessness …

    In addition, there may be a lack of motor precision and problems learning and performing complex tasks. These motor signs can be so disruptive that they can affect processes so seemingly unrelated to memory and obligatory discrimination.

    2.2. indirect responses

    The indirect answers are escape or avoidance behaviors of the patient, which have some voluntary but not absolute control. These types of behaviors are typically presented as a response to the other two components of the triple response system, namely cognitions (thoughts and feelings) and physiological changes.

    This type of behavioral response includes behaviors that in the short or long term can harm the health of the individual or lead to various problems: alcohol abuse, smoking, consumption of prohibited substances, consumption of large amounts of food …

    3. Physiological responses

    Physiological responses are those which they appear when there is a certain increase in the activity of the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system, In addition in combination with the endocrine responses of the central nervous system. These systems are involved in the organically given responses to a stimulus that causes anxiety, such as increased cardiovascular activity, muscle tension, sweating, dry mouth, interrupted digestion. …

    The patient should not show all of these physiological signs when a stimulus appears which causes him anxiety, but it must be said that in case of manifesting it and that it remains for a long time it can have negative repercussions on the physical health of the affected person. For example, being constantly anxious and expressing one’s physiological responses for a long time can cause problems such as insomnia, gastrointestinal discomfort, muscle contractures, erectile dysfunction, tachycardia …

      Useful in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders

      The triple response system model is very useful in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders because, since cognitive, motor and physiological aspects may not manifest with the same intensity when an anxious stimulus appears, it is possible to obtain a more precise differential diagnosis and apply more. appropriate therapeutic techniques for the specific case.

      One of the main problems with verbal interview reports is that they focus more on the cognitive and purely emotional realm of the patient.In other words, he is asked how he is feeling, something that needs to be known, but he is not evaluated how the patient behaves in a purely anxious situation, which makes him manifest responses of all three types. To know how to help the patient, it is necessary to go beyond the internal, evaluating both his organic response and his behavior to the stimulus, aspects of which even the patient himself may not be aware.

      With the triple response system model is included the need to elicit, in a controlled context, the responses associated with anxiety. For this reason, Peter Lang himself often resorted to stimuli such as photographs, words and sounds with a positive, negative and neutral component, stimuli which aroused some kind of emotion in the patient. these stimuli have their own system, the International Affective Imaging System (IAPS) and the International Affective Sound System (iAds).

      This same strategy is fundamental today for detecting and treating anxiety problems such as phobias. Knowing that a patient feels anxious in the face of a phobic stimulus is necessary in order to be able to diagnose him as a phobic patient, but it is of little use that he does not go further and it is a question of knowing how he reacts to it. he says, he feels anxious. For example, to help a patient with arachnophobia, images of spiders can be presented to them, recording their behavior, what they are feeling and also the physiological response they are manifesting.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Álvarez, J., Aguilar, J., Fernández, JM, Salguero, D., and Pérez-Gallardo, ER (2013). Stress before exams among students. Proposal for intervention. INFAD Journal of Psychology, 1 (2), 179-188.
      • Martínez-Monteagudo, MC, English, CJ, Cano-Vindel, A., and García-Fernández, JM (2012). Current state of research on Lang’s three-dimensional theory of anxiety. Anxiety and Stress, 18 (2-3), 201-219. Retrieved from:
      • Serra, JC, Ortega, V. and Zubeidat, I. (2003). Anxiety, anxiety and stress: three concepts to differentiate. Mal-estar and Subjectivity / Strength Magazine, 3 (1), 10-59. Retrieved from:
      • Fernández-Abascal, EG, Guerra, P., Martínez, F., Domínguez, FJ, Muñoz, M. Á., Egea, DA and Vila, J. (2008). The International Affective Sounds System (IADS): Spanish adaptation. Psychotema, 20 (1).
      • Jesus, MIV and Isabel, M. (2008). Psychophysiological mechanisms of pathological anxiety: clinical implications. Editorial by the University of Granada.
      • Castellar, JV (1984). Therapeutic implications of psychophysiological experimentation with anxiety. Anuari de psicologia / The UB Journal of psychology, (30), 45-58.
      • Correa, S. (2020). Triple response system: the Lang model. Spirit and science. Retrieved from:

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