THE CONCEPT OF SAFETY, AND ITS RELEVANCE TO YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Dr. Poorna Menon, ND
To understand what it means to be and feel safe and then knowing how to experience such safety starts a remarkable process in our body: that of regulating our nervous system into a profound state of calm - the state from which our body knows to rest and repair. Feeling safe is hence a critical first step on a very important journey that nurtures a core part of ourselves: our parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of our nervous system that supports life-promoting processes whilst helping us to relax and regulate. Entering this state accesses an important stage of recovery and self-regulation, generated by our body's own neurobiological processes. Ultimately, this is how we as humans build resilience, because this part of us, as it grows stronger and more developed, is what becomes our backbone for dealing with all of life's ups and downs.
Take a moment to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of years that humans have existed as a species on this planet. The environment in which we learnt to live and thrive is what contributed to our biological evolution and ability to survive as a species. The things we were exposed to influenced our way of enduring this world. Our exposures influenced our biology, dictating our reactionary abilities and survival mechanisms. Survival is thereby so hardwired into our biology that the things we do in order to survive are sometimes unapparent or unconscious within us. Rather, they are instinctive. They are our body's attempt to access safety in order to survive anything that is recognized as a threat by us.
Thousands of years ago, the triggers that would have launched us into a 'survival mode' would have predominantly been obvious physical threats: a predatory attack, famine, destabilization of our habitat, environmental disasters, etc. However, in the last couple of centuries, with the advent of industrialization, capitalism, and technology - physical threats have diminished and the things that put us into a survival mode (where we begin to search for safety), look and feel very different. Today's triggers include emotional and mental threats to our identity and self-worth. For many of us in developed societies, emotional and mental triggers are often the things we face on a daily basis, further to actual physical threats.
In spite of this, because we are biologically wired in the exact same way as we have always been, even if the threat to our safety looks different, the reaction in our bodies is identical. Meaning, our nervous system knows to launch us into 'fight' or 'flight' (or 'freeze' or 'fawn') regardless of the nature of the trigger. It is the sense of unsafety that dictates our reaction, regardless of the actual trigger itself.
We launch into these survival responses because they activate in us a deep search for trying to find safety. If in our attempt to access safety, we are not truly successful, then the response taken by our nervous system becomes a maladaptation: one which helps us to live through the moment, but one that cannot help us to thrive at our best. Such maladaptations can become ingrained patterns in our neurobiology over time, which because we become accustomed to following, our bodies turn to time and time again keeping us stuck in these patterns. In short, our nervous system, because it has been kept alive, turns to the same maladapted pattern of survival it has always turned to in times of stress.
Take a moment now to pause and gently ask yourself, what might be making you feel unsafe? Is it the sound of your alarm going off in the morning, an argument with a stranger/colleague, or loved one? Is it running late for an appointment, watching the news, or feeling jealous of a stranger on social media? What takes you out of your comfort, into a sense of no longer feeling safe?
When unsafety is activated within you, your neurobiology springs to your defence. Its job is to keep you safe and to keep you alive. It uses the patterns it knows you have used in the past to get you back into safety. If your patterns have included breathlessness, crying, screaming, or dissociating, it will resort to these same reactions because it has observed them as keeping you alive. Alive = survival. Your neurobiology is not able to distinguish into a higher form of finding safety, or self-regulation, unless you consciously give it a different option to follow in times of feeling unsafety.
It is thereby important to understand that it is you who is always in the driver's seat. The patterns you play out in your life, because of your triggers, are still under your command (no matter how difficult that may seem). No matter how deep the trigger, starting to understand that your body's response comes from its deep need to keep you alive can begin changing the way you seek out survival and safety. From there, working with a Mind-Body practitioner who can teach you alternative behavioural patterns when you are in a survival response, will slowly begin unworking years of maladapted patterns. As you learn and practice new regulation skills, your body will begin to drop into what is truly safe for you. The maladaptations then become healthier adaptations - and as the new patterns take root within your nervous system, they get rewritten and the story gets retold.
This is when your mental health, or your Mind-Body health, can truly begin to recover. Such self-discovery is often the journey of a lifetime, because developing gentle self-awareness, unworking years of maladaptive behaviours, and deeply understanding your triggers takes time, patience, self-compassion, and often, the loving guidance of a trained practitioner.
Now, having read through all of this and what safety and survival could mean for your Mind-Body health, take some time to let the meaning of these words slowly wash over you. I encourage you to re-read the parts that might have been confusing or those segments that might have spoken to you deeply. Finally, when you are ready, check in with yourself on how you are feeling. If reading these words resonated with you at some level, take some time today to ask yourself what makes you feel unsafe. Then, gently reflect on what you do in such times of unsafety. Are there better ways for you to live and be?
If you would like the support of a practitioner in Mind-Body work, please schedule a free Discovery call with Dr. Menon here, where you can share your health goals and she will share her unique approach to your health:
Dr. Poorna Menon, ND