The word safe has been defined as a state in which one is without any harm or hurt (potential/actual). This suggests that while one is not under direct threat, they also don’t anticipate any kind of emotional or physical harm. This is one feeling which is experienced without much conscious thought, and people rarely inform each other that they ‘feel safe’. To connect to this feeling, one must get in touch with their inner sensations, this will help one to take charge of their emotions and body. In contrast, when one feels unsafe, they might feel scared and anxious with physiological symptoms such as sweating and increased heart rate, which are automatic responses (Preisler, 2013).
The feeling of safety in the discussion is cultivated from within through ‘emotional safety’. It is widely known how safety, permanence and well-being (Preisler, 2013) are prioritized for each individual while growing up. With each individual feeling safe from harm, having a permanent family and being well in all spheres of emotional, social, financial and physical security. However, this notion of safety was just compartmentalized to being free from physical abuse but needs to move from that to a broader idea of emotional/ or psychological safety.
Evolution of Feeling of Safety
The primitive nervous system is always on a lookout for threat. It gives constant attention to the potential or actual occurrence of danger in the environment since it remains unpredicted when one would be exposed to it. The autonomic nervous system comprises of the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ and ‘parasympathetic nervous system’. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for activating the body’s fight or flight response by increasing the heartbeat and rate of respiration. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is involved in the rest and digest response. So if the SNS reduces the response time and prepares the body for potential danger, the PNS makes one slower and calmer. If the human body is a car, the sympathetic nervous system is acceleration, and parasympathetic nervous system pushes the brakes. In threat, the acceleration increases, which causes one to fight or flee. Whereas, when the brakes are put, the person engages in resting or passive behaviour which includes normal breathing, muscle relaxation and even freezing. Safety is not predictable in modern times as well, then why humans are not on a constant alert still?
Humans have evolved a refined mechanism where they have become more attuned to detecting danger through subtleties such as shifts in emotional states of close people. Although any stranger could be a potential threat, it is also adequately known that humans benefit from association with each other. To benefit from the other, each person must exhibit ‘safety cues’ or characteristics which encourage and invite others to participate. Humans started developing a need for socialization and a sense of belonging which led to the inception of a ‘higher social brain’ formally known as the “ventral vagal complex”. This was activated when one experienced safe cues such as a soothing voice, calming touch/gesture of peaceful imagery. All of these combined helped one to feel comfortable and secure in the presence of another person while making an emotional bond with them as well. It’s now known that feeling safe in the fact that people are essential to mental health and secure connections help one to create a meaningful and satisfying life. Surprisingly, research shows that when the need for safety is not met, one cannot fully achieve permanence within family nor can they enhance their well-being (Preisler, 2013). Since the body has a natural state of being on guard, of feeling emotionally close to someone, the defence systems must take a backseat. Research also shows that fear reduces playfulness and curiosity (Popova, 2016). To play, mate and nurture, one must feel safe by experiencing reciprocity through a focus on visceral feelings which helps the body to calm down, heal and grow.
On the other hand, in a situation where two parties involved are in conflict, they start to present expressions which convey distress like tensing of muscle, frowning or change in voice which elicits defence from the other side. This is an example of the situation where one would feel threatened; thus, act accordingly. Everyone doesn’t need to pay heed to their intuitive feelings. But when one experiences a prolonged state of stress related to feeling unsafe, their ability to detect safety cues in the environment reduces making them see danger where there is none (Popova, 2016). When the threat is misperceived, the responses associated with acute stress can still be overwhelming and prevent people from connecting with and getting close to others.
Source: Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Heart and the Bottle, an illustration describing what happens when difficult emotions are denied
Development of Feeling of Safety
In the most natural state, humans feel safe and calm by clinging to another human, this is formed by the initial relationships between a child and their caretaker. A secure base is formed between the two parties where the caretaker mirrors the need of the child, making them feel attended to and understood. This secure attachment, when combined with the promotion of self-competency, can help a child to develop an internal locus of control. This can promote learning of what feels good or bad and form an agency of their own which directs how they think and react towards a situation altering the outcomes. Securely attached kids learn soon enough that they can control some difficult situations and ask for help when needed.
However, children who did not experience such secure attachments realized that their actions such as crying, pleading or asking do not produce the desired outcome. Desired outcomes involve attention from the caregiver. Thus, they become conditioned to give up when faced with challenges. Since the caregiver is unable to provide after the needs and impulses of the child, they adjust themselves according to the caregiver’s needs. It results in discounting their own world becoming more detached from their inner sensations leading to a divergent pathway of unsafety.
One needs to understand here that the need for attachment doesn’t dilute with age; humans generally cannot disengage from fellow humans. Thus, if love, friendship or work doesn’t help fulfil that need, then illness or domestic issues will. This information about attachment helps to understand the link with safety, thereby reiterating the importance of interpersonal attention and innate need to connect with others by feeling safe with them. An important question that arises here is whether we relate to survive or survive to connect? (Grande, 2018)
What can be done to make each other feel safe?
For people who have experienced some trauma, Van der Kolk suggests them to begin by taking ownership of their body. This can be done by appreciating one’s body for taking good care. Also, recognize that one wants to be more aware of what they are feeling while trusting their instincts. Another step may be to observe oneself when overwhelmed or ashamed and finding a way to be calmer. It also helps to focus entirely on the present and engaging with those around rather than succumbing to self-isolation due to perceived harm (Popova, 2016). Lastly, its best to remind oneself and accept how the body continued to survive, however, acknowledging the need to now move past that survival phase. Helping one’s own body feel safe first is probably the best option for many. Some other ways one can do that are (Livingstone, n.d.):
Recognizing safety exists and one is deserving of it
Identify safe people, spaces or objects for self and write about them
Get enough sleep, food and movement
Leave relationships which feel untrustworthy
Find out the source of trigger within the self for healing
However, if one feels capable of offering it to others; Stephen Porges (2011) mentions the importance of providing safe social cues to individuals by pausing before responding. Taking a deep breath at the moment can help one get back in their body and out of the negative loop to react. Practising self-affirming statements like “I have faith I will be heard”, “I will try to put my concern in a way which is easy for the other to understand” can help too. Building compassion on these lines also helps and can cultivate sensitivity to one’s own need as well as that of the other. To feel safe one must also be able to believe that they can take care of themselves when the going gets tough, this can be achieved through motivational self-talk by stating things like “I am okay/safe” or “I will get through this”
When one is calm in responding to the other person, they emit safe cues for social interaction which will help the other person to react similarly. This is a beneficial way to reduce conflict but also to strengthen a relationship and create a ground where everyone feels heard. One can practice the following for safer relationships as well (Koenig, 2018):
Be curious to help someone rather than judging them
Provide validation to the person
Listen actively and attentively to the person’s experiences
When making a safe space for someone try not to retaliate or dominate them but approach with a collaborative hand
While prioritizing safety, it is essential to emphasize emotional safety over conflict resolution
Determine what the other person needs and help in the best possible way
Grande, D. (2018, September). The Neuroscience of Feeling Safe and Connected | Psychology Today. Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-it-together/201809/the-neuroscience-feeling-safe-and-connected
Koenig, K. (2018). How to Create Emotional Safety in a Relationship. https://www.karenrkoenig.com/blog/how-to-create-emotional-safety-in-a-relationship
Livingstone, B. (n.d.). The Importance of Feeling Safe - Wellness, Disease Prevention, And Stress Reduction Information. MentalHelp.Net. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-importance-of-feeling-safe/
Popova, M. (2016). The Science of How Our Minds and Our Bodies Converge in the Healing of Trauma – Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/20/the-body-keeps-the-score-van-der-kolk/
Preisler, J. (2013). Being Safe vs Feeling Safe. Fostering Perspectives, 17(2). https://fosteringperspectives.org/fpv17n2/psychological-safety.html