Do you feel safe?

If you lack a general sense of safety in your life, work, relationships and social life – have you ever wondered why?

If, like me, you are pre-millennial (born before 1980) you might recall a different, safer experience of life. Looking back from today it appears quaint, naïve even.

The pace of life was slower, families stayed together more, both in terms of relationships and geography, school was less intense, career paths were more stable and predictable, religion and community were stronger influences and expectations were in many ways lower. We spent a lot less time staring at screens and had more time for conversation and, well, loafing about.

Boring? Perhaps.

Yet, we now have a crisis of mental health – depression, anxiety, suicide, loneliness and addiction – and chronic physical illness.

What happened?

The rise of Internet-based technology is often cited in such deterioration and with good reason.

But it’s not the only culprit.

Many environmental factors limit healthy connection with our fellows.

We are pack animals.

Our core safety is challenged.

Polyvagal Theory and safety

I have just read an excellent book on Polyvagal Theory#1 that explains our feelings of unsafety in neurobiological terms.

Here are a few of the ideas contained in the book:

  1. Fight, flight or freeze

    Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS – the system triggering the fight/flight adrenal response to danger) has a third response: freeze

  2. Safety is involuntary

    The involuntary physiological states resulting from ANS function have a major impact on human behaviour. One of those involuntary states is ‘safety’

  3. People need people

    Humans require long-term social interdependence to survive. Without it, children could not be reared and safety cannot be experienced

  4. Social bonding

    Social interdependence is fostered by the ‘social engagement system’ – a set of reassuring facial, vocal and body language cues and responses between people

  5. Connections give us safety

    Feelings of safety depend on those cues, that inhibit the defence circuits triggered by risk/threat. In other words, social engagement mitigates fight/flight/freeze – consider the soothing presence, touch and voice of paramedics at an accident.

  6. Regulating emotion and behaviour

    When safe, we engage socially and co-regulate our emotions and behaviours. When unsafe, we act out.

  7. Our modern unsafe life

    Institutions such as schools, hospitals, workplaces and churches are designed around systems of chronic evaluation that appear to us as danger. They deny safety

  8. Screens foster separation

    Staring at a screen likewise denies us safety, as there are no vocal, facial and body language cues to induce the social engagement that produces safety. In schools, the play, music and sport that give us social engagement are being squeezed from curricula

  9. Rest and Repair

    Without safety, we cannot effectively learn, heal, rest, regenerate, be creative, regulate emotions or connect socially

  10. Creating safety

    The Polyvagal Theory proposes a neurophysiological model of safety and trust. Feeling safe depends on
    (a) the ANS not being in ‘defence’ mode;
    (b) the social engagement system being active; and
    (c) safety cues from others being detected

What does that all mean?

The bare essentials of Polyvagal theory are that we need social interaction to survive, but we can only engage socially when we feel ‘safe’ at the involuntary level. Anything that compromises our feeling of safety puts us in to fight/flight/freeze and we cannot thrive.

OK, it’s more complex than that – but read the book#1, it’s written by a research scientist.

So, do you feel safe?

Sadly, for many of us these days, fight/flight/freeze is our norm.

We can’t work hard enough, be successful enough or have enough to feel OK.

We live in a constant state of existential unsafety and we’re permanently on edge.

PTSD and freeze mode

For those experiencing (in particular) PTSD, this effect becomes further entrenched if we descend in to ‘freeze’ mode. People who experience a sense of helplessness when confronted with life-threatening situations may freeze as the only available survival option. It’s a ‘learn once’ survival technique that’s hard to emerge from. We sometimes characterise it as dissociation.

In trauma situations of human threat, where there was no social support available, we learn not to trust. So, we downplay our social engagement system, cutting off access to a sense of safety.

Curiously, PTSD sufferers, as those with autism, are often hypersensitive to sound and have difficulty extracting human speech from background noise. In Polyvagal Theory, the vagus nerve mediating heart rate also affects muscles in the inner ear. With increased social engagement, hearing improves as smiling tightens the inner ear muscle.

What can be done?

You’ll be happy to know that the book, written in 2017, also suggests therapeutic methods to work with a sense of unsafety.

  1. Establish a safe environment by reducing noise, giving social cues, respecting the individual’s agency and experience
  2. Acknowledge that lack of safety comes from the body’s best efforts to protect itself and invite the individual to celebrate that survival mechanism
  3. Remove shame about any unwelcome behaviours arising from lack of safety
  4. Re-frame the story surrounding ANS responses – from victim to hero
  5. Invite emotional co-regulation with a ‘safe’ other
  6. Encourage listening to the body instead of rejecting its feedback
  7. Conduct auditory training to reduce audio hypersensitivity
  8. Teach ways to regulate ANS responses through slow deep exhalation, singing, playing wind instruments, listening to melodic female vocals, meditation, yoga, rocking chairs and play

#1 by Dr Stephen W Porges, 2017

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