What Happens When We Don’t Feel Safe?

In all new situations, our sensory organs immediately begin an observational process to determine whether it is safe, or if we need to get out QUICK!

Dr. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist, has termed this process of perception and evaluation “neuroception.” He defines this process as “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”. This rapid response hardware and software integration takes place in the limbic system of our brain which works at a sub-conscious level.

One key element if we have experienced trauma, is the perception of threat can be real or has the "felt-sense" of being real to our body. Even when no threat exists in our environment.

When our nervous systems are designed to constantly seek safety from danger and threat, how do we manage to live harmoniously in a world full of new people and situations? How do we connect and establish relationships without freezing up or shutting down?

Depending on what your life experiences have been will inform your sensory organs. Our body is an incredibly complex system and tracks all the complexity we experience in our lives. It does so much beneath our conscious awareness.

When you were younger, did you get to learn how to ride a bicycle? At first you probably had a few spills. You had to learn how to keep your balance along with the complexity of steering while pedaling to gain momentum, and then being able to maintain that momentum. As you repeatedly practiced this your body learned what to anticipate and know what to do next, especially if something unexpected happened. You learned how to brake, how to speed up, and how to coast, which can be a lot of fun.

This is what it is like for our lives as well. What if in our life we had experiences that were painful and ones that were not safe for us. Some of us may not remember what happened to us in our life. We just know that if there is a certain tone of voice, or a certain body posture, or even if there are a certain number of people in a room, our body will identify that it is very similar to an experience when we were not safe. Then the automatic process of releasing electrical signals and neurochemicals in our body to protect us. Our body is doing its best to take care of us so that we can survive and hopefully thrive in our life.

When we have had trauma in our lives and we sense danger in our environment, we need to be able to accurately assess whether there is a risk present. When it is safe, we need to be able to modulate or inhibit our primitive system that is set up for defensive reactions, commonly known as “fight, flight or freeze.” This can be tricky if we haven’t been able to notice we are reacting, and it really is safe.

When we can begin to journey down that path, to notice when we believe it’s not safe, and then discover it really was safe and not feel ashamed about that or be judged for that, then the part of us that experienced the trauma can begin to heal.

The neuroception of safety supports healing to happen, it makes it possible. I experienced once being triggered in a group setting by the body posture, tone of voice, and facial expression of a colleague. I was met afterwards by a dear friend who gave me very lovely somatic empathy. That laid down a new pathway for me. The more I was willing to allow myself to be met there in my experience and to receive that support, the pathway thickened, becoming more solid, and I became more resilient.

I’ve been on this path for years, yet there can still be an opportunity for your sensory organs to see a new situation and determine it’s a match with a past experience and begin the process of taking over. It does this in order to protect you from the pain it’s convinced is going to happen. This happened to me in another group setting where we were debriefing from holding the space for others to learn. I was excited to share around one of the processes I had held, others were listening and engaged except for one individual. I noticed this person’s posture changed. They slumped back and down with their arms folded and began looking all around the room uninterested in what I was saying.

When I saw that I was able to recognize in the moment that it felt as if there was a cold fog that had come into the room and settled down in the whole area. I could feel my skin and it felt like it wanted to withdraw. I was fascinated by noticing this. At the same time, I’m attempting to track my conversation. When I realized I was starting to tip over into a little overwhelm, I did something that I’d practiced before. Practicing when I feel very heart-centered and present, putting my hand into a specific posture, it could be either one of my hands that I would practice this with, anchoring the memory of being in a state of stillness and calm. My body learned to recognize that when I placed my hand in that posture, I am safe, I am present, and I can engage.

So, when I noticed that cold fog come in, and the body posture and facial expression of this other person, I could start to track that there was a link going back to my past. It was telling me that I needed to shut down, I needed to be quiet, I needed to disappear and become invisible so that I would be safe. I also recognized at the same time that I was in a leadership position and that shutting down was not going to be supportive for me.

When you’ve practiced time-traveling to different parts of your life and different times in your life, making empathy guesses for what it was like to be you, that pathway becomes more accessible. Your social engagement system can time-travel back to parts that may have fragmented, in order to sweep them in and catch them and bring them home.

So, I made the hand signal for myself and I touched the other hand briefly to my chest creating skin to skin contact and releasing oxytocin into my system, which not only feels good, it supports me to stay present. Then, I silently acknowledged my inner self (the part of me who had been traumatized in the past) saying, “It’s okay, I am here, I’ve got you. We came here for this very opportunity, for us to develop our capacity to lean in, rather than to shrink back. To stay engaged and open and curious about what is happening in this moment, in order to lay down that pathway inside for a deeper healing experience. Then I leaned forward and intentionally engaged with the other person asking, “Excuse me, is there something you’d like us to hear?”

So, the places where I used to shrink back, and used to get small or pretend I was, those places when I notice them now, I do my best to reach out and support them. Or I reach out to another person to hold that space for me and receive some empathy around what its like to be me in that moment.

If this resonates with you, and you’ve experienced something similar, I invite you to take your time to be with the part of yourself, to be with your inner experience, and to recognize this might be a trauma perception. Your body’s wisdom might be picking up on something you are not consciously aware of yet. Next, begin to notice what is in your environment, naming objects you see silently to yourself. When we name what is in our environment, we begin to become more present in the now.

Another helpful skill set is to notice your own body’s posture, are your shoulders rolled in? Did your head drop down? Just notice, is your back straight? Is your tummy tight? Are you breathing shallow? As you start to track your implicit experience, your body’s experience, any parts that may have fractured or splintered, start to feel safer, because there is an acknowledgement at a cellular level. This is a very gentle way to begin to invite a new experience in your body.

We all need accompaniment in any of those moments in our lives where we were alarmed and alone. Those parts of us need to be warmly welcomed home.


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