Safety and Healing

Posted by: bailey on June 5th, 2018

Todays neurobiology is reminding us, as many of us have forgotten this intuitive fact, that safety is an essential part of healing. This may be a result of the way our society is now a prioritizing of cognitive processes over feelings and body sensations. As we learn to listen to our body and take its cues and provide it with what it needs, we can be drop into the nervous system state of safety that allows healing and integration to happen.

Stephen Porges is a well known researcher of nervous system and the creator of the Polyvagal Theory. He describes “safety as associated with different environmental features when defined by bodily responses versus cognitive evaluations”. What this means is that we take cues from the environment and internalize them, this leads to a body responses that let us know we are safe. Much of the time these feelings and sensations are out of a person’s awareness and therefore at times we have the ability to ignore or override the responses.

This is different than using our thoughts to guide the safety process. For example one can think that going out at night is “safe”, but when the body is tense and the heart is racing the body is letting us know that something is not totally safe. Using our body responses to guide our feeling of safety is a new approach to safety as our society is defining safety by whether there are lights, an alarm, or fences etc. When we actually learn to listen to these responses we may be able to keep ourselves feeling safer. Allowing us to be guided by our body allows us to get a more accurate picture of safety.

Polyvagal Theory explains how our body takes in information from the environment and then when it registers risk our nervous system can engage in one of the three responses, fight, flight or freeze, depending on what the body deems appropriate. In the moment of a traumatic incident these responses are meant as survival strategies.

The theory also explains what is called the social engagement system. This is a system that takes information from the gut about our subjective mood states and emotions and communicates it via the face and head and vice versa. The nerves and structure that are involved with this system regulate facial expression, ingestion, listening, and vocalizing. So if based on one’s gut feeling we are not feeling safe this may be expressed through our facial expression and a quiver in our voice. It can affect our digestion and listening too. This systems helps us signal when we feel safe or alternately when we don’t. This also explains how we can be mutually supportive and enable co-regulation (the ability to settle in the presence of another).

So why is safety important? When we are feeling safe we are in a nervous system state that allows our body to work most efficiently. In this states we able to integrate, process and grow to the best of our ability. The body in this state is in a state where there is significant parasympathetic arousal, during this neural state rest and recovery can happen. Also, the immune system is able to function. The feeling of safety helps promotes opportunities to create safe and trusting relationships. These relationships then also expand opportunities to connect and co-regulate.

With a history of trauma, people often have fight, flight, and freeze responses that get dysregulated (out of whack). They may have less access to a sense of safety that is a calm nervous system state. This can look like hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, anxiety, nausea, IBS symptoms, high startle reflex, depression, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, numbing, feeling out of their bodies, and using various things such as video games to drugs to cope with some of these feelings.

One of the first steps in counselling clients with trauma involves creating feelings of safety. This first starts of with creating a relationship that feels safe. Sometimes this is a challenge when clients have experienced trauma in relationship. Making this process explicit can help a trauma survivor move through some of the trauma. It can mean slowly building a relationship that feels safe when there are not other safe relationships. Other ways that safety can be fostered can involve making the client aware of places they already feel safe, or using mindfulness to establish if there are real risk factors in certain situations. It can mean encouraging clients to connect with trusted people in order to feel safe. Sometimes it means creating an imaginary place in the mind where the client can go to feel calm and safe. The process of creating safety can sometimes be fast and sometimes takes a while. As the client spends more and more time in a felt sense of safety they can then go on to process more about the trauma and heal and grow.

In a world where our felt sense is sometimes dismissed, we are learning to take cues from our body. The neurobiology reminds us that when we connect with others in trusting ways we can expand our sense of calm. This calm and safety can be so valuable to healing and traumatic growth.



Kendall- Tackett, K. (2009). Psychological Trauma and Physical Health: A Psychoneuroimmunology Approach to Etiology of Negative Health Effects and Possible Interventions. American Psychological Association. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Vol. 1, No. 1, 35–48 1942-9681/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0015128

Porges, S. (2017) The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. W.W. Norton & Company. USA.

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