How are we suppose to feel safe in a world full of danger and impermanence? Why is it that some people can breeze through life with confidence and calm, while others are consumed by thoughts of danger and betrayal? Believe it or not, our health, and the quality of our lives, are affected by the degree to which we feel safe. In this article we will explore what is important about feeling safe and how do we create that in our lives.
Lets start with our nervous system which is designed to react to danger in order to survive, to connect and form intimate bonds, and to shut down the heat when it all gets too much. Some of the answers to why we need to feel safe lie here. These three parts to our nervous system work together to help us deal with and make sense of the world around us. When we are in danger and threatened all three parts of our nervous system will come into play.
Nervous System’s Response
Most of the danger and threat that we experience in the world is at the hands of others. Sometimes that can be single events such as a physical attack, bullying, verbal abuse or witnessing violence, but it also occurs from the accumulation of interactions with others in our lives. The continuous mis-attunement of a mother to her infants distress, living in an atmosphere of criticism and judgement or the unpredictability and neglect caused by a father’s alcoholism. It is easy to see how our safety is threatened in the world by a single event; the fear, shame, anger and powerlessness that we feel is sharp and palpable. But the ongoing experiences that threaten our safety are like a thousand paper cuts, one cut is no big deal but becomes excruciating when one of many. Using this analogy our feeling safe in the world is no less compromised by thousands of razor sharp cuts than a single blow to the head.
Our nervous system works similarly over time as well as in a single event; there are differences but in understanding our experiences of safety I am simplifying the process. The connecting part of our nervous system comes into place first and is where we live when we are regulated and calm and not threatened. When things are uncomfortable or we experience the first signs of threat will still attempt to keep a connection. We use our eyes, ears and voice to engage the other. Whether we are an infant in distress, or a child that questions the adults around them and tries to speak about their concerns, or an adult who tries to calm an angry spouse; they are all attempting to communicate a desire to connect in order to create safety. The nerves in our head area are connected to our gut and heart that give us signals in assessing threat or opening up to an intimate connection. If the uncomfortable signals from our gut continue they will reach levels that trigger our fight or flight area of the nervous system which takes over and the connecting part goes off line.
We will then try to fight or flee a situation to survive. We may be engaged in this part of the system when we are angry and protesting, refusing to be coerced, and of course, engaged in physical defense. In addition to running we take flight when we withdraw or make ourselves invisible. Staying very quiet all the while our heart is beating loudly is an example of when we would be in the fight or flight, or when we actively avoid uncomfortable situations or interactions with others. Our system becomes activated to help us do this by adrenaline being pumped into our blood stream, our muscles tensing and breathing shallower. This will happen in varying degrees depending on the situation. If we use the analogy of many cuts our system’s activation may be in a very tolerable range at the first cut but each one increases the pain and hurt to the point where another cut is intolerable and we feel in crisis.
The more overwhelmed we become we have a part of our system that cuts off from these feelings. From a nervous system perspective our body is feeling that the threat is so high that it thinks we are going to die, and pulls back our energy towards the vital organs to conserve strength in a last attempt to survive. We can recognize this part of our nervous system when we are numb or spacey, and it is hard to access how we feel. We associate consciously or unconsciously feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness in having an impact. Examples may be when we give up on expressing something because we believe we will not be heard or taken seriously, when we have thoughts that we can’t do something or there is no point. It is a place of collapse. Our fight or flight has not been able to change the situation and the more we feel trapped, dependent or lacking in control this will kick in.
We are not designed to remain in the fight or flight or the shut down part of our system for very long. If we do then our body and sense of self will begin to pattern future responses to the world from either this sense of emergency or what we might call being frozen. If we remain in a heightened state of emergency our body is revved up most of the time which puts stress on our systems. When we remain shut down not enough energy is getting to parts of our body that over time causes deterioration. Our muscles, circulation, lymphatic system, posture and flexibility will all be activated differently depending on which of these parts of our system we are in, and the types of experiences we are having. Our nervous system’s response corresponds to feelings, sensations, physical movements, images and eventually beliefs that all develop into what we call patterned responses to the world.
Both positions create feelings of being unsafe; in a nutshell we either feel that we have to fight off danger or that we are at the mercy of a cruel world. Both, as we see from above, are necessary when trying to survive, and those feelings match that situation. However, when we are unable to release this energy we develop fixed patterns of beliefs and behaviour that keep us stuck in feeling unsafe. There is less room in our system where we feel regulated and calm and connected to the world, so it takes less stress to move us into the emergency or frozen state. Ironically for people who find themselves in these two states often, they have come to believe that mistrust keeps them safe from harm. In other words, their emergency system and being frozen is viewed as keeping them safe not actually being safe. They are responding to the world assuming they are in danger when they are not. The tension that once enabled them to fight back when they were being harmed has become armor in the body and the mind.
Experiencing and creating safety
Feeling safe simply occurs when we can relax. As we relax we sink down into the moment and experience. That we are open and aware to what is going on around us and how that connects to our inner world. We are not aware in a watchful defense but a welcome embrace to all that is around us. There is an openness to the moment not a self absorbed bubble around us that shuts others out. The sense that we can tolerate what comes our way and not be overly concerned with trying to prevent things from happening. When we feel safe we can connect with the world and others with ease. Feeling safe allows us to be flexible and adapt to change.
It is important in our ability to experience safety that we release the traumatic energy bound up in our system. This is because it creates more space to be in our connecting part of the nervous system which is when we feel regulated and connected to the world around us. In other words, we experience a sense of wellbeing and safety. Ironically it is through feeling safe that we are able to release the energy bound up in our emergency and frozen states. What this means is that we have to develop safety within our self and with others before we can tolerate the relaxation of our mistrust.
Connecting with others who are calm and centered is therefore really important in recovering from traumatic events and releasing this energy. We need to build an awareness and experience of being in the connecting part of our system first, in whatever way we can, and then move into the stuck emergency and frozen states slowly. Working with a therapist who is trained and skilled in creating a relationship with you that is safe, non-judgmental and accepting is one important way to go. Other relationships such as with a spouse, close friends and family can provide the safety needed to release this energy. However, this can be difficult because those in our life have a way through their own humanness of behaving in ways that easily trigger our emergency and frozen states. If you are someone who has a lot of mistrust you may find that you never really get to a place with the people in your life where you can relax to let go of this energy. Having said that, people and community are a powerful force in our life to create safe connections if we look for them. Over the course of our life these relationships are crucial in healing us from those that have betrayed us.
Developing our awareness of being regulated and grounded, and hanging out in that place as long as we can, is important in promoting our sense of safety. Examples of such activities might be sitting on the beach listening to the waves, thinking about images that promote calm, listening to music or doing yoga. It is important to develop a mindfulness in relation to these activities. That is, to pay attention to your experience through noticing the sensations in your body and learning to become aware of when you are regulated. Anything that we pay attention to becomes bigger. I will leave you with a quote that I came across many years ago that helped me in understanding safety and trust. “Fear says I will keep you safe. Love says you are safe”
Stephen W. Porges: The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system, International Journal of Psychophysiology Volume 42, Issue 2 , October 2001, Pages 123-146
Social Engagement and Attachment. A Phylogenetic Perspective By Stephen Porges New York Academy of Sciences 1008: 31 - 47 2003