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.

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