Physiology of Safety

Is safety real or are we all feeling different degrees of safe even in the same environment? Have you felt unsafe in a group, where regardless of everyone being in the same circumstance, the rest of the group did not feel threatened? Or were you ever in a train or waiting area where most people are very subdued or self-contained but one or more people were talking excitedly? How did you feel? Were you drawn to those people or did their excitement provoke you to withdraw?

In this post I’m offering a perspective on how we experience safety which comes from having been taught somatic practices (1) and having read recent neuroscientific reports (2) which match my experience. It’s about the experiences of threat and safety that we have lived through and that have become patterned into our body’s nervous systems.

One of our largest, longest nerves is the vagus nerve, which joins our brains with our faces, ears, and our chest and belly organs. The nerve functions as described by Stephen Porges, an eminent neuroscientist, mostly as a pathway for information about imminent threat or safety coming from our body sensations to our brain.

Essentially Porges has researched the physiology of danger and safety as we feel it. Our bodies are constantly monitoring our environment for threat/safety – visually and from within our organs – and communicating to the brain. If we are mortally threatened, say by a speeding car, we might not think and just let our bodies leap out of the way. Then when safe, we may sigh, maybe shake out stress and move on; or if we are backed into a corner by a threatening person we can’t fight or run from, we might feel our muscles go limp and collapse into a faint – playing dead, this is close to actual death and is another survival strategy. It is emphasised that we do not consider our responses to threat, but we are unconsciously controled by our polyvagal threat responses and sometimes we are powerless over them.

So what of ‘feeling safe’ in this world of potential dangers we cannot eliminate? What Porges says is that if we as humans can get our bodies to feel at rest and at ease, this is the experience of safety we need to aim for, rather than aiming to eliminate all potential threats from outside. Our bodies are fine-tuned to pick up signals of threat, and we need to be alert when there is danger. But it is equally important for us to enjoy feeling ease and comfort in our bodies. How do we do this without turning to sedatives and stimulants, or disappearing into our screens?

Porges’ work has elaborated more and more on the real physiological process of ‘social engagement’ and attuned connection in relationship, which begins in utero and ingrains itself in us from birth. Social engagement is communicated between people through facial expressions, varied tones of voice and ‘attuned’ relational touch. The attunement and responsive communication creates the physiological effect on our vagus nerve that in turn regulates our heart, dampens the arousal response and/or brings us back from dissociative states.

Porges proposes a modern day dilemma, which you may well recognise, in that he comments on how challenging our urban and institutional environments are for our over-worked threat-detection systems; how many learning, healthcare and workplace environments are set up with only physical safety in mind (voluminous health and safety manuals and rules etc) but that the relational safety is not recognised nor attended to. He names the ways in which particularly low-pitched sounds can activate our bodies into alert; and lack of face-to-face attuned communication and touch mean that we are underresourced to down-regulate.

The consequence of being hyperalert constantly, as proposed now by polyvagal theory and evidenced in many of our experiences, is that our bodies are stressed and our physical and mental health is impacted on by busy thoughts and an inability to rest, recuperate and digest our food properly among other of our functions. Our immune systems and hormonal balance are impacted and can result in chronic illness.

I wanted to share this recently accessible information – released from the ivory towers of science! – because I feel that by knowing about the vagus nerve and threat systems and processes which our bodies produce, we can normalise and reduce the judgments we have about our own behaviour, whilst also learning how to change the reactions of our nervous system in manageable ways.

How is your social relating or ‘befriending’ impulse helping or hindering you in regulating your feelings of threat and safety? One reason for calling my practice Befriend Your Body is that for some of us, the fear of danger has been so consistent in our lives. Learning how to feel safe is a process which takes time and practice with intention, like with strengthening our muscles, or learning any new skill. We may need help to find ways to understand and befriend our bodies back to feeling safe, little by little, and Deb Dana’s book which I’ve read and referenced below [2] is a wonderful guide.

There are methods you may already be using like mindful attention and observation of your body sensations and movements, which supports non-judgmental relationship to what’s happening, thereby down-regulating the threat trigger of the vagus.

The practice of reflective and objective description in dialogue with a non-judgmental person can also gently tease out the details of your bodily responses, thoughts and emotions. This helps you recognise what is an automatic reaction based on the past, which can be re-patterned by recognising what is different about you and the present situation, both in how you think about situations and how you resourcefully choose how to respond to them now. This process is a big part of trauma therapy and how you can resource yourself and manage tricky physical, emotional and mental survival responses.

For many of us, it’s a gradual yet really rewarding and life-affirming process re-train our bodies to recognise and create a feeling sense of safety by finding the conditions that evoke rest, digestion, curiosity and playfulness. When we find the safety conditions, it’s so important to ‘hang out’ there, savour that feeling and keep finding it again and again.

As a final note here, I’d love this to be true for more of us and those we love so please share what you can of anything from what I’ve written that supports you with anyone who will receive it! You may even want to find these books and read them.

(1) Linda Hartley’s Integrative Body and Movement Therapy training emphasises the development of our nervous system in the context of our early movement and relationship experiences. My trauma training with Miriam Taylor and others has focused on the impact of early life and later life trauma on our survival, and how to resource ourselves as therapists and our clients in our care with body-awareness, somatic practices that equip us to recognise safety and to reduce stress through our relationships to our bodies.

(2) I’ve been reading the neuroscience of ‘safety’ as researched and reported over the last decade by Stephen Porges, an American scientist. Porges calls his model the Polyvagal Theory and the strapline to his book is The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. Another book I’ve been reading alongside is Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, which has gone a huge distance in making the languge of the science accessible to people like me and specifically how to apply it in therapy. This knowledge needs to be out in the mainstream yet so far it is mainly known about in the realm of trauma work and academia.

If you enjoyed reading this and want to receive more like it as well as some guided somatic practice audios and videos straight to your email box, please subscribe in the field below.

Embodied Pain Management – Sensing Safety Within

A new weekly class beginning in Cheltenham on Wednesday 19 June. 6-8pm. £15 per class or £40 for 3.

This class is for you if you are living with chronic pain in your body, you recognise that your pain is real and cannot be ‘fixed’, AND you want to enhance and enjoy more your experience of living in your body.

In this group we will familiarise ourselves with the neuroscience of pain, foster a sense of safety and curiosity about our sensory experiences and reframe and create new body memories through moment-to-moment body awareness in gentle movement, breath and reflection with each other.

Each person’s subjective experience is welcomed and witnessed as we build trust and safety together. Please contact me to book on.

Embodied Movement Classes starting 30 April!

click image for flier

These classes are ideal for you if you are:
-seeking more balance between habit and creativity
-experiencing health challenges or limited mobility
-desiring companionship in a group where we share our different-from-usual perspectives on living in a body!
The series offers a sacred time for you to reconnect within the world of your living body. Using experiential anatomy maps from Linda Hartley’s lineage of BMC, Mari has developed ways to take you into your skin, inner tissues, muscles, bones, organs and fluids through facets of your experiential anatomy, exploring what you feel as you rest into gravity, allow emergent movement and sound and feel contact to the external environment. This is a window out of ‘everyday reality’ and you will have the space and time to explore what you perceive via your nervous system and imagination, through which you can recreate your reality!

There will be seven studio sessions and a session in Nature.
Please book ahead: £100 for all 8 sessions; £50 for 3 sessions; £20 for 1 session. For concessions, please contact me 🙂

Skills in Active Embodied Listening.

So much of my experiences in relationship this week has been pointing me back to the necessity for active embodied listening, not just in therapy but in life. It’s a skill, quite aside from ‘opening’ the ears, to slow down and detach from the momentum of the thinking interpreting mind! How often do we ‘listen’ to folks but not really get what they are saying because our own script is running? Often!!

The same can be said for how we relate to our body senses. I notice for myself and others that often there is a ‘scripting’ which shapes our senses as we interpret the present-time communication from our bodies. Again, scripts speed up our reactions to what is happening so we often miss what else is there. Our relationships to our sensations can be blurred by our busy inner ‘Scribe’, evaluating and making stories about them, categorising and framing them in experiences from our past. For example: when noticing a pain in the neck, this would become a story either about an injury, a stressful workload or a disease perhaps, which then leads us to experience emotions and reactions which fit that story. Do you have examples of this coming to you? What would happen if you noticed the sensation, noticed the reaction you were preparing for and stopped; took a breath, and opened your curious mind to details of this momentary sensation.

There are several skills we can learn for this to happen. One is to pause in reaction and notice, be curious about our sensations, where they are, what they are like, get familiar with them and to NOT attach a story. The skill is to stop the story taking us on a pathway to feeling more or less than what we noticed in the first place, and to return to the actual sensation.

Another skill is to find objective descriptor words to capture the details of the present experience: ‘tight’, ‘fizzy’, ‘warm’; and locate the sensations ‘at the base of my neck on the right side near the spine’; whilst resisting the urge to evaluate it or attach it to a story/scenario with a beginning, middle and end! This practice is not about denying the potential truth in any of our stories/scripts. It’s about awareness how we get caught and then miss other potential truths or details which are more real here and now and can support us to respond more freely, rather than being bound to react to what we feel.

In my therapy and coaching work with clients, I help to strengthen these skills with them, to help bring more clarity to their relationships with their embodied experience and their truth. I support bringing back a non-judgmental understanding of embodied sensation and experience in the present moment. I do this by encouraging my clients to locate and find words and movements for the sensations they are able to feel, giving time to hear and eventually to separate out any stories about the feeling, and acknowledging what is ‘present’ and what is ‘past’.

My bodymind movement classes, apart from being a wonderful time and space for self-care and gentle movement, offer a unique way to be in this practice I’ve described. A participant put it: “Moving Body Wisdom classes take us deep into a body-meditation… as well as direct experience and deep inner listening, we are immersed in an extended process that brings insight and new levels of understanding.”

When enough time is given to naming details of what we feel, recognising the stories/scripts becomes easier also. We can feel the impact of this deeper listening around them, as we free ourselves and feel more liberated to connect our experience in the now with what is happening now!

Befriending is about engaged listening and communication to build a rapport that is two-way. There are simple structured communication practices that can help cultivate listening and this is key to my approach to individual therapy, coaching and my movement exploration groups. I long for more of us to listen more deeply to one another and am passionate about facilitating that listening wherever I can.

Contact me if you are interested how my therapeutic and group work might enhance your relationship to yourself and others.

From simple to complex – and back to simple!

Human Egg from Lennart Nilsson’s ‘A Child Is Born’.

We began as a single cell with homeostatic functions for energy consumption, waste clearing, immunity and growth. Then we became ever more complex organisms! The essential functions of this cell got more complex, diverse and fascinating as we developed into our full human form with cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, immune, endocrine and nervous system diversification, which are all about the homeostatic balance of wellbeing… which began in the cell.

It’s that simple and that complicated: unless we can consciously receive and respond to signals from our instinctual and homeostatic functions, the tendancy is to loose sight of how we can support our natural internal balancing process: we override signals from our nervous system that we need to rest or breathe more deeply, or from our digestive system to eat / drink differently to support the balancing of our physical body and biochemistry. So when we experience imbalance and upset of these systems, it can be deeply restorative, to go back to this simple place of being, as a witness.

To simply witness and allow with regular ‘tuning in’ time, turning our focus from outward to inward, we can begin to notice more details about the internal signals, find familiarity with a bigger range of communications from our bodies and learn what they are guiding us to do. This helps us be in a process of regaining balance in our health and wellbeing.

Ways to connect and allow this homeostatic process to happen can be mindfulness combined with curiosity about your body’s physical composition; finding opportunities to relax deeply into your body and move with the intention of supporting your body into ease, pleasure, sensuous feeling and expression of your internal feelings. Maybe you can notice all the ways you don’t allow this for yourself in your everyday life, and maybe find small moments to begin or give more time to being this way with yourself.

You are welcome to try one of my classes which support this intention of returning to this deep embodied connection, to witness, to allow and to integrate our bodymind back into everyday life.

Befriendyourbody blog feed ending

Dear subscriber, I want to thank you very much for your interest in receiving my posts and updates directly from my website blog. I unfortunately have to terminate using this particular channel for communicating because unwanted content is going out with my posts. This is due to the service being free for me to use,  however I did not want for you to be receiving the other ‘spam’ posts which are often not related. If you would like to continue to receive my posts, I will be sending links on my regular newsletter which comes from Mailchimp and I would need your permission to subscribe you. Please can you confirm if you would like to continue to receive my posts via Mailchimp asap? I will be terminating this blog feed after this post. I hope to hear from you and that you’ll join my Mailchimp list, which is GDPR compliant.

Forthcoming groups 2019

Tuesday evening Moving Body Wisdom sessions til 2 April! More after Easter.

Please book now by emailing or calling me – details on the flier.

 

Moving Body Wisdom classes bring the focus back to the infinite availability of our sensate body, through guided attention, self-touch and movement. My classes can become a weekly commitment to your own relationship to your body and health. You will come away feeling more deeply appreciative of your body as a living organism, curious to learn more by spending more time connecting within and most likely with a sense of deeper balance and awareness to support you in your life.

You’re most welcome as a newcomer, returner and regular mover at any of my classes, but please do book with me in advance.

 

 

Feeling safe

When I feel safe, I feel I can deal with most things myself or collaboratively, but also in this state I feel more trusting with the unresolved things.

I hope this post will help to open your curiosity about your experiences of feeling fear and also of feeling safe.

Fearfulness conjures scarey images and worst case scenarios, because fear is designed to mobilise us to do the utmost to survive. Our worst case scenarios combine our imagination with our expectation of what the threat is, so this depends on your history of fearful events. Feeling safe is proportionate to our resourcefulness to deal with potential threats and can likewise be associated with our experiences of ease, safety and being able to deal with threats effectively, including whether we are alone or together with others.

As humans we have adapted the nervous systems of reptiles and mammals, which give us our survival fight/flight/freeze experiences of fear. You may recognise how fear often gives you strong physical reactions in addition to your thoughts! This is because your nervous system wires your entire body to react to that ‘life-threat’ by doing any of the above, in a very short space of time.

Rightly so if you are really being threatened, however, as modern urban dwelling humans we are also (most of the time), relatively safe from life-threat. To ensure this, we have an additional mechanism in our nervous system: a social engagement system (S. Porges, ref below). The social engagement system involves our faces and our ears: sight and sound and is designed to balance out the fear when we find and feel the presence non-threatening or better, loving/helpful connection with other humans and animals. The social engagement system also influences our whole nervous system and bring about relaxation, warmth and a spectrum from neutral to joyful feelings. These mechanisms are not about being free from threat, but they are about resourcing us to deal with threats more effectively in connection with a group.

This is one of the important aspects of how relational therapy works and many books have been written about this [ref below].

The reason why our health is so impacted upon by our feeling state of fear or safety is because our digestive, immune and cardiovascular systems are impacted upon by fear reactions, as described above, and their normal functions get disrupted if we are in fear a lot of the time. This is how chronic digestive or immune conditions can arise, where the complex interrelating systems get confused or burdened and we can become vulnerable if we are hit with a physical challenge like disease or injury.

Conversely, if we are in receipt of regular loving relational touch, companionship and collaborative living, we are more likely to be resilient to these threats to our wellbeing, because our innate physical systems can function optimally in the absence of fear and recuperate and repair more effectively. Because chronic conditions are exacerbated by ‘stress’ of various sorts, the ability to relax is underpinning many approaches to supporting sufferers of these conditions.

We humans need social connection and a sense of belonging to feel 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. Research has shown that people with loving relationships live longer, have better physical and mental health.  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.

Natural environments and the company of animals can bring us essential connection to our natural organismic state of balance. Leaning against a tree, watching a sunset or visiting a friendly animal are just a few examples of how nature can nourish us, helping us get out of our everyday thoughts and experiencing the beauty and compassion of nature’s cycles of life.

We can also de-stress ourselves by gently shaking our bodies, focusing on slowing our breathing, and placing a hand on the chest or belly, thus reminding our nervous systems to relax. Notice then, how the state of relaxation might ease or soothe any pain you might be feeling.

So I return 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. Supportive relationships are essential to resourcing ourselves, including family, friends, colleagues and people in supportive roles like therapists, coaches and community leaders.

References

The Body Keeps the Score: Bessel Van Der Kolk. 2015. Penguin Press

When the Body Says No – Exploring the Stress Disease Connection: Gabor Mate. 2013. John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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

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

New Sunday date for Bodymind Movement

Tuesday evening classes continue from 30 October til 4 December. Please check if you can come to the afternoon workshop I’m offering on Sunday 9 December! See flier for details and Please book in advance. This is for regular Tuesday movers and those who can’t do Tuesday eves or who want to dip a toe in..!

The focus for Sunday 9th will be on the physical processes by which our cells offer us life: containment, fluid, presence of being, nourishment, release, activity and rest, birth and death; and how these basics evolve in our skin, our bones and our fluidity. We cannot access more than we already have within us, but for most of us, what we have within is not well understood by us. There is support here for going there, receiving ourselves more fully and walking out more aware of this wisdom that is there for the harvesting every moment!

“The class gave me space to really feel into my body systems – creating a sense of whole-me; as well as a reminder that I can really slow down in my interactions with my body. That led to a profound interaction between myself and an incredibly neglected part of my body later that day.” – recent participant

I’m aware how many more of us are still seeking ways to engage more deeply with our bodies as fundamental to our experience of ourselves in the world: intuitive and instinctive authority, as well as our patterns and habits, our amazing resourcefulness and resilience and our longing for connection more broadly to life. In my classes, I offer a safe, contained space to practice exploring opening our bodyminds together, sharing and learning from each other in enquiry… not fixing, not being right or wrong, just being more engaged.

More people find themselves in their body

Wouldn’t the above be a great National news headline?! It could be now..! A dream being lived and a practice to help you live it! Can you feel your body on this Earth, here and now, as you read this…

The story would be about people across the colonial Westernised influenced world realising that bodies are sensitive for a reason, so we can respond to them! To me and maybe to you also, this isn’t just a fanciful thought, it feels important for the whole of life as we know it and don’t know it.

The story continues: people would grasp the concept of ‘soma’ – as the ancient Greeks (who lent us this word) did and many present-day Earth-respecting (often indigenous but also somatic revolutionaries!) people do – which is that the body lives us, adapts us, creates responses to environments and relationships and receives and processes more information than we can ever hope to know about.

But we would be collectively realising that we can relate in life huge amounts more, through our bodies, than we currently do! Soma-tic connection and movement would be valued as a practice that connects us into that intelligence. Consulting our somatic consciousness regularly would be supported rather than labelled ‘self indulgent’ by our cultural media and championed for health and wellbeing as much as our ‘keep fit’ practices.

Somatic language would be becoming more commonplace, for communicating our bodymind experience, rather than remaining a mystical concept of ‘intuitives’ or ‘psychics’ so that more and more we’d be sharing our experiences in conversation and supporting the somatic balance with and around each other for more gentle and respectful balance of expectations in life. A kind of ‘quiet’ revolution – or maybe not so quiet…

So, we can energise the ripple and if you’d like, here is an invitation to ask: how is your bodymind, your soma?

How do you check in and begin receiving yourself in this way? You may like to try things I’ve offered on my previous blog posts, or something you know works for you. Then just receive the first signals you recognise from your body, your senses, your feelings? And now is there more?

If you like this post, you can receive ones like it directly to your email by subscribing in the subscribe field just below this post. You’ll also receive updates on my classes/workshops/events.