Feeling safe

Here’s a piece I’ve written which I hope will be of interest to you and help to open your curiosity about fear and safety in your experience.

What is safety in the human experience? Is it always about being free from threat?  Can we ever be safe? Should we feel safe? I’ve been considering these questions myself as a human; and as a professional therapist, it’s so key to my work with people.

Feeling fearful is literally gut-churning, tense muscles and cyclical thinking, which are at the basis of anxiety and depression and so limiting of spontaneity and creativity. Feeling safe is the opposite, our hearts and breath are at restful pacing, we feel open, available in most ways.

When I feel safe, I can deal with most things myself or collaboratively, but also in this state I’m happy to sit with the unresolved things, trusting that I’ll find a way in this and I can surrender to the unfixable.

Neuroscientist Stephen Porges has researched a theory of our physiology involving the 10th cranial nerve: the Vagus nerve, which explains why we get churned up and tense, and why we also can relax and feel at ease (1). Humans have the adapted vagus nerve inherited from our reptilian and mammalian ancestors – ‘freeze, fight and flight’ when threatened by attack; and as social animals, isolation also feels threatening. The vagus nerve modulates our heart rates in safety; but in fear, it stops regulating the heart and the heartrate shoots up, and along with adrenaline and other neurochemicals, fills us with available energy to react.

In our own personal histories, we may have felt more or less fearful of animals who’ve threatened us but mainly it seems to be that we fear attack or entrapment by other humans, or fear the loss of our relationships and material resources and the ultimate fear of death. And even if we aren’t being outright attacked or pursued, we can feel as a lizard might, or a deer or a monkey… Fear, frozenness, weakness, nausea, rage… These feelings are because our bodies have felt threatened, are primed to notice threat and have evolved ‘go-to’ patterns of defence which are based on our earliest experiences of trying to survive. Our bodies remember and they are active trying to protect us.

It is complex, but feeling threatened or feeling safe doesn’t always correspond to actual danger or threat. Think of how it is to walk alone in a dark street versus how it feels to walk with another in exactly the same conditions; or how it feels to walk in that street when it’s light and other people are around. There is something about connection to other ‘safe’ humans that supports us to feel resourced or to deal with threats more quickly. Connection to others can help us feel safe. This is because, as I said above, a huge factor in our safety feeling comes from belonging and connecting with a social group. But as said previously, other humans are not always safe, and we can feel confused, perhaps preferring to deal with threat alone.

We humans struggle to feel safe a lot of the time. Feeling fear often generates a lot of uncomfortable intense sensations and behaviours, which are hard to come out of without help. Deb Dana has written about the application of this theory to therapy (2). She enables therapists to explain and support their clients to recognise how their body detects threat and translates it into the way they feel. She also shows how we can seek safety signals from people around us, and the environment which will help us settle our bodies and thoughts, and how we can repattern strong, unsettling body responses when we are not actually being threatened. Primates are ‘pro-social’, which means they utilise social connections for their safety strategies. They use warning strategies, negotiating and gradual escalation of reaction to threatening ‘others’. So as primates we humans need social connection and a sense of belonging to put these strategies into effect. Feeling safe is also about how our nervous systems are supported to settle, to soften our muscles, to rest; and to enjoy being awake, active and expressive of who we are together with others as well as alone.

Soothing behaviours involve touch, laughter, good food, warmth and comfort, a nice bath etc, which bring our bodies into release of tension, shared mindset and relaxation. There are many ways we feel the threat to our lives and our wellbeing: experiences of trauma, accidents, loss of loved ones, abuse and captivity. Anxiety/fear also lurks when we feel we may have more to lose. As individuals and as a collective, we forget how to just be, to rest and digest, and receive nourishment. We forget that in order to rest, we need to feel safe. This is also reflected in ways we undermine our own needs for balance in order to ‘keep up’ with the echelons of society we strive to be a part of – our need to belong, and our need to generate resources for our own survival. The irony is that a lot of energy goes into ‘gearing up’ to survive, and if we could recognise resources and resourcing relationships whereever they are in our lives, we could reclaim a lot of our energy and feel safer more of the time.

So I come back to the point that feeling safe is not about being safe. It is about feeling resourced to respond to whatever presents itself and feeling at ease with how things are. How to feel safe is about how to regulate our internal responses once we’ve determined that there is no threat. ‘Grounding’, breathing, heart-centred meditations are all about reminding our nervous systems how to guide us to draw boundaries that feel safe enough and with these, to open to connection with others and feel resourced by these connections. We should never try to rid ourselves of fear, however, we do need to know how to balance it enough with feelings of safety and resource.

It’s also important to know that when you feel calm and resourced, you offer that to others in your state of being. In a similar way to how we can stress each other out, we can also calm each other down. Maybe you will notice this more and more in everyday life: the moments you feel calmed by another; the moments you feel wound up by another and the other way round: how you influence others with your state of being excited/anxious or calm.

References

[1] The Polyvagal ~Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. Dr Stephen Porges. 2011. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology. USA.

[2] The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. Deb Dana. 2018. W. W. Norton, Inc. USA

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