How do we feel safe in a world full of danger and impermanence? Why do some people breeze through life with confidence and calm, and others are consumed by thoughts of danger and betrayal? We know our health, and the quality of our lives, are affected by the degree to which we feel safe and can develop trust. In this post, I will explore what is important about feeling safe and how we create that in our lives
Nervous System’s Response
Let us start with our nervous system which is designed to react to danger in order to survive, to connect and form intimate bonds, and to shut down the heat when it all gets too much. Some of the answers to why we need to feel safe lie here. These three parts of our nervous system work together to help us deal with and make sense of the world around us. When we are in danger and threatened all three parts of our nervous system will come into play.
Most of the danger and threat that we experience in the world is at the hands of others. Sometimes that can be single events such as a physical attack, bullying, verbal abuse, or witnessing violence, but it also occurs from the accumulation of interactions with others in our lives. The continuous mis-attunement of a mother to her infant distress, living in an atmosphere of criticism and judgment, or the unpredictability and neglect caused by a father’s alcoholism.
A single event can threaten our safety and ability to trust. We can also experience ongoing threats to our safety like a thousand paper cuts, one cut may be no big deal but becomes excruciating when one of many. Using this analogy our feeling of safety in the world is no less compromised by thousands of razor-sharp cuts than by a single blow to the head.
Three Areas of the Nervous System
Our nervous system has three main areas. The connecting part of our nervous system comes into place first. We are regulated and calm. When things are uncomfortable or we experience the first signs of threat we will still attempt to keep a connection. We use our eyes, ears, and voice to engage the other. Whether we are an infant in distress, a child who questions the adults around them and tries to speak about their concerns or an adult who tries to calm an angry spouse. They are all attempts to communicate a desire to connect in order to create safety.
When the uncomfortable signals increase enough they will trigger our fight or flight area of the nervous system which takes over and the connecting part goes offline.
We will then try to fight or flee a situation to survive. The fight includes anger and protesting, refusing to be coerced, and physical defense. In addition to running, we take flight when we withdraw or make ourselves invisible. Staying very quiet as our heart is beating loudly is when we would be in fight or flight. Our system is activated by adrenaline pumped into our bloodstream, tensing our muscles and causing shallow breathing. If we use the analogy of many cuts. We remain in a tolerable range at the first cut but each one increases the pain and hurt to the point it is intolerable and we feel in crisis.
From a nervous system perspective as the activation is overwhelming our body experiences the threat as so high we are going to die. We cut off our feelings and energy at this point in order to survive. Feeling numb or spacey is a common way to experience this part of our nervous system and it is hard to access how we feel. We associate consciously or unconsciously feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness in having an impact.
When we stay silent because we believe we will not be heard or taken seriously and when we have thoughts that there is no point. It is a place of collapse. As we feel unable to change the situation and trapped, dependent or lacking in control this will take over.
Experiencing a Lack of Safety
We are not designed to remain in the fight or flight or the shutdown part of our system for very long. If we do then our body and sense of self will begin to pattern future responses to the world from either this sense of emergency or being frozen. If we remain in a heightened state of emergency our body is revved up most of the time which puts stress on our systems.
When we remain shut down not enough energy is getting to parts of our body that over time causes deterioration. Our feelings, sensations, movements, images, and beliefs all develop into what we call patterned responses to the world.
Both positions create feeling a lack of safety. We either feel that we have to fight off danger or that we are at the mercy of a cruel world. Both, as we see from above, are necessary when trying to survive, and those feelings match that situation. However, when we are unable to release this energy we develop fixed patterns that keep us stuck in feeling unsafe. There is less room in our system where we feel calm and connected to the world.
Ironically, people who find themselves in these two states often, have come to believe that mistrust keeps them safe rather than actually being safe. They are responding to the world assuming they are in danger when they are not. The tension that enabled them to fight back has become armor in the body and the mind.
Feeling safe simply occurs when we can relax. As we relax we sink down into the moment and experience. We are not aware in a watchful defense but a welcome embrace to all that is around us. There is an openness to the moment, not a self-absorbed bubble around us that shuts others out. When we feel safe and trust we can be ok then we can connect with the world and others with ease. Trusting ourselves and others allows us to be flexible and adapt to change.
Dealing With Past Trauma
To increase our experience of safety and trust we need to release the traumatic energy bound up in our system. This relates to the reactions and behaviour that re-enact our past trauma. As we do this more space occurs in our connecting part of the nervous system. Ironically it is through feeling safe that we are able to release the energy bound up in our emergency and frozen states. Therapy is one place we might develop this experience of safety and trust.
Connecting with others who are calm and centered is important in recovering from traumatic events and releasing this energy. Working with a therapist whom you feel comfortable with is one important way to go. Other relationships such as family can be difficult because they have behaviours that easily trigger our emergency and frozen states.
If you are someone who has a lot of mistrust you may find it hard to get to a place with people in your life where you can relax. Having said that, forming trusting connections in our community is essential to creating trust and safety. Over the course of our lives, these relationships are crucial in healing us from those that have betrayed us.
When you are regulated and grounded, take in this awareness as long as you can. Examples of such activities might be sitting on the beach listening to the waves, thinking about images that promote calm, listening to music, or doing yoga. It is important to develop mindfulness in relation to these activities. That is, to pay attention to your experience through noticing the sensations in your body. Distinguishing between calm and activated. Anything that we pay attention to becomes bigger. I will leave you with a quote that I came across many years ago that helped me understand safety and trust. “Fear says I will keep you safe. Love says you are safe”
Stephen W. Porges: The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system, International Journal of Psychophysiology Volume 42, Issue 2 , October 2001, Pages 123-146
Social Engagement and Attachment. A Phylogenetic Perspective By Stephen Porges New York Academy of Sciences 1008: 31 – 47 2003