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