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When we think of safety, we may think of seat belts or protective measures against gun violence at schools or home alarm systems.
However, while these things are important, safety is actually in the body. It’s not in the mind; it’s not a belief; it’s not a spiritual ideal; it’s not a concept; it’s not even a thought.
Safety is an embodied experience—our nervous system either feels threatened or calm, as a biological survival response, independent of our thinking brain. When we feel threatened, we either default to our sympathetic nervous system state of fight, flee, or fawn, or we enter the dorsal vagal state of freeze, all within a nanosecond.
As a Woman-Centered Professional Coach and practitioner of Polyvagal Theory, I have learned to deeply respect the role of our autonomic nervous system that is constantly scanning for cues of danger or safety through this amazing process called neuroception, which happens just below the level of conscious awareness, as an inborn threat detector,
Personally, I have spent much of my life feeling unsafe in my body, but I just didn’t know that was what was going on. I actually thought it was in my mind and that I could somehow make myself feel calm by shifting my thinking alone.
I even remember sitting in a Vipassana retreat, trying to relax into stillness, yet I just felt on edge and couldn’t seem to settle the knot in my stomach or the tightness in my chest. I actually thought my anxiousness was because it was me, that I was somehow less evolved.
Through all of my years of spiritual study, there was an implicit message that suggested that safety was an illusion and that with my mind alone, I could choose peace. The goal was to let go of the illusion of safety and just surrender and trust. I truly believed that safety was something that was in my mind and that my mind could control.
The lightbulb moment for me came when I realized that I was fighting against my most basic human experience. As a human, my body was doing what it does best—keeping me alive! In order to stay alive, we are wired with an exquisite ability to scan for cues that tell us if we are safe or unsafe, and this response takes place in the body, not in the head!
Therefore, the more I learned to help my body feel safe (and stopped using my mind to try and tell myself to calm down), I could actually learn to feel safe by tending to my body instead of just trying to mentally invoke it.
Remember, as mammals, we have an incredible ability to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn when we sense even the slightest sniff of danger (which may be in something as simple as someone’s vocal tone or facial expression!), and our body can’t discern the difference from threat that is real or imagined.
If you’re someone who has struggled with anxiety or hyper-vigilance, who has a hard time sleeping or settling down, it might be because your nervous system is responding to perceived cues of threat and is stuck in a survival response, which, by the way, is normal.
Just as much is there is an internal threat detector guiding us away from harm and toward safety, we also have an extraordinary capacity for connection and well-being, when we feel safe.
Here are seven ways to engage the pathways in the nervous system and brain that bring you into a state of safety and regulation, especially if your body is stuck in a survival response of fight, flee, freeze, or fawn.
1. Spending time in nature.
2. Deep belly breathing with longer exhales.
3. Being in warm water.
4. Wrap yourself in a blanket like a burrito.
5. Whinny like a horse where you fiddle your lip.
6. Do a spinal twist.
7. Have a cuddle with another human or a cherished pet.
These all activate the ventral vagal branch of your parasympathetic nervous system. When the vagus nerve is “online,” we naturally calm down and feel connected, safe, and warm.
Here’s to creating a world filled with many moments of safety and kindness.