We contain within ourselves the resources to heal from our physical and emotional suffering. However, this natural flow of healing is blocked when we don’t feel safe. To heal, we need to cultivate safety first.
As a coach, I frequently witness people struggling to access the benefits of healing due to feeling chronically unsafe.
This will be the first post of a few on cultivating safety in service of healing. I touched on it in my post on emotional armouring, and now I want to go into it in more detail. Here, I explain the basis of 'safety first' and why you should care. In subsequent posts, I will write about how to cultivate safety.
Our innate healing resources
The body's healing resources are controlled by the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system. This is largely contained within the ventral vagus nerve, which runs from our brain throughout our body. The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system impacts our health on several levels:
Physiologically, when this branch is active, the healing functions of cells are switched on. Our body starts to repair itself. The parasympathetic is sometimes known as the 'rest and digest' system, but this misleadingly suggests that it is only available to us when we are actively resting. On the contrary, this can and should be our normal or home base.
Relationally, when we’re in the parasympathetic branch, we feel calm and connected, to ourselves and others. In this state, we can 're-parent' ourselves and form healthy relationships, mending old emotional wounds.
Energetically, the parasympathetic system allows us to deeply relax, releasing areas of chronic tension (emotional armouring). Energy is able to circulate freely around our system, to where it is needed. The body is free to move at all levels, e.g. muscles, joints and fascia. Beneficial micro-adjustments naturally happen as we breathe, in this less armoured state.
What happens when I don’t feel safe?
In short, the healing parasympathetic branch switches off, and our nervous system is instead governed by the sympathetic branch and the dorsal vagus nerve. The sympathetic nervous system gives us the ability to mobilise, fight and flee, or to collapse and ‘play dead’ until the danger goes away. These are important functions in the right situation. However, if we rely on them to get us through the day, we sacrifice recovery and repair.
Why is this so important?
There are two key ideas I want to get across.
Safety is feeling it is ok to be you, exactly as you are, without needing to change, achieve, or fix anything internally or externally.
Most of us have normalised a feeling of unsafety, for a number of reasons (cultural, social, biological, personal, ancestral, and so on), such that we don’t even realise we don’t feel safe most of the time.
To see what I mean, if you’re feeling generally ok and not overwhelmed right now, pay closer attention to how you’re doing. (If you are feeling overwhelmed, find something that grounds you, such as feeling your feet on the floor or resting your gaze on a familiar object. Stop reading for now.)
How’s your mind? Is it racing with a million things you need to do? Are you feeling distracted or scattered? Are you going over something that happened in the past and wondering what went wrong? Are you planning for the future?
How’s your body? Give it a scan and see if you can identify areas of tension or pain.
If you answered yes to any of these prompts, these are indications that a part of you doesn’t feel safe to just be you.
If you want to investigate further, you could try doing a safety audit of your life as it is today. For example, you could consider, on a scale of 1-5, how safe you feel (how ok is it to just be you, exactly as you are?) in your friendships, home, work, leisure time, family and romantic relationships.
Now, see if you can extend some acceptance to everything that you found. Let it be ok for these things to be how they are. Notice that, here and now, you are safe.
Most of us go through our days with a more or less subtle sense of pushing. We feel we need to force ourselves to do things, or else… This is the sympathetic nervous system in action. Occasionally, the pendulum swings the other way and we collapse, finding ways to escape the responsibility we sometimes find crushing.
Recognise this pattern? You’re not alone! To varying degrees, this is almost universal. But please don’t feel hopeless about this. Our physiognomy tends towards balance (homeostasis) regardless of our background or circumstances. Left to its own devices, without our conscious control, healing does occur (e.g. when we sleep, or relax with friends).
We can align ourselves and our choices with this natural momentum towards healing. In so doing, we can reduce our present suffering and, very importantly, we can reduce the risk of having serious health problems in the future. I'll write about how to do this in the following posts. In the meanwhile, you could try two daily check-ins:
Morning: What small thing can you do today to cultivate a sense that it's ok to just be you right now?
Evening: When did you feel safe to just ‘be’ today?
If you like, let me know what you discover in the comments.
P.S. To find out more about the different branches of the nervous system, I highly recommend reading anything by Deb Dana. The practitioner’s textbook is “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation”. She’s also written a book for everyone interested in their own healing: “Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory”.