Understanding Safety in Therapy

When I feel safe, I feel I can deal with most things myself or by asking for help. Perhaps more importantly, in this state I feel more trusting with the unresolved things.

I hope this article will help to open your curiosity about your experiences of feeling fear and also of feeling safe. How much of your sense of safety is about how things are inside you and how much is it about actual external threat?

Fearfulness can start from a bodily feeling or a thought, or be triggered by something outside of us. Usually a combination of these conjures scarey images and worst case scenarios, because fear is designed to mobilise us to do the utmost to survive: fight, flee, freeze or flop. We get this from our animal ancestors, to increase chances of survival of attacks from predators. Like animals, we base our responses to threat on our experiences of what has worked or not worked for us to overcome or escape threats in the past.

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 we trust. Like pack animals, humans can feel safer when in a group and feeling safe creates conditions for mental and physical health to thrive.

Primates and Humans also have an additional safety mechanism which most other animal species don’t have: a complex level of social empathy. We use our faces and our voices to try to create safe, attuned relational connections with others so that we know that those we are with are on our side. Social empathy is something we feel as well as think about and it most often opens us to creative dialogues and activities with others. Our bodies and our thoughts are deeply connected so that if social empathy is working, we experience relaxation, wellbeing and spontaneity in behaviour. A good level of social empathy with those around us enables us to feel safe and therefore at ease in our bodies which encourages health and creativity within us. If it isn’t, we may start to feel estranged from people and anger or fear escalate, such that we fall back into patterned reactions of behaviour and thinking which are more related to fight, flight and freeze. These conditions can impact detrimentally on our physical and mental health, as we isolate or are isolated and our bodies are stressed and unable to relax.

This is one of the important factors in my work with clients and I will do all that I can to help each person find the conditions they need to feel safe enough or understand what is feeling threatening. For each person this is very different, so there is no such thing as a ‘safe space’ because it is a process that needs to be understood from the individual experiences. I support clients to sense into their bodies and notice where they feel fear tension or wellness and relaxation. This often matches how they are feeling threatened or safe. Once this is established, we can explore the evidence in the present moment and from the client’s history that can explain why they feel this and together explore how to reduce any threatening aspects of the therapeutic environment for the client and name the historical patterns which might be influencing their experience currently.

If you are curious about what I have written here because you are feeling stressed, fearful or overwhelmed by aspects of your life, it may be helpful to consult a therapist and I would be very glad to hear from you. I offer a free 20 minute phone consultation in which to help you take the next step toward getting help. Please contact me to enquire if I can help you.

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