How Safe are we Really?

feeling safe trauma healing

What is safety? How does it feel to be safe? Does our safety depend upon others?

I see that in the aftermath of the #metoo campaign the subject of safety has risen in the collective awareness. People are asking questions around their experience of safety in a previously unfamiliar way, and personally I celebrate this.

I’ve been pondering on the concept of safety particularly the commonly held belief within self-development groups that our experience of safety is our responsibility. I want to share some of my thoughts, experiences and research, with a view to broaden our understanding of what safety is and where our responsibility and vulnerability sits within this as planetary citizens.

I want to start with science, neuroscience to be exact.

Deep within the limbic structure of the brain is a bilateral structure called the amygdala, this receives sensory information direct from the sensory systems that process the stimuli from the external world, meaning through the visual system and the auditory system etc. with the purpose of assessing our level of threat.

Diagram of brain indicating the amygdala

On the output side it interfaces with all the systems that connect to emotional reactivity, i.e. if you experience sudden danger you may freeze or go into fight or flight, these are all amygdala outputs. Furthermore it also receives information from the higher order processing areas in the prefrontal cortex. Thus it takes in information from the environment in a variety of types and uses that information to form responses and associations.

The associations it forms between random or neutral external stimuli and reinforcing events will stamp in these experiences into the hippocampus in a significant way. This leads to adaptive behaviour, for example if you hear a sound that is followed by a painful event, each time you hear that sound your amygdala will expect pain to follow, so you may find yourself avoiding places where this particular noise may be present. Remember all of this is happening continuously without our conscious awareness.

So we can say that safety, on a nervous system level, is determined by the input and output of the amygdala and the associations between external stimuli and reinforcing events.

Next I want to explore Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal theory

This describes safety as feeling settled and grounded in the body while being mindful or present. His theory delves deeper into human interaction and explains when feeling safe, being around other people is easy, we socially engage, meaning we are able to connect with others using our social activation system; our eyes look at the other/s and our faces make expressions which can be read by others, all giving cues to how safe we are as a human being.

When the social engagement system is activated we feel connected, open and curious. It’s in this state that we can feel most pleasure, as blood flow to our genitals is n0n- restricted, resulting in greater sensation. Conversely in the absence of safety our nervous system switches out of social engagement and activates the flight, fight freeze response which can be characterised by feelings of irritation, anger and rage in fight, anxiety and panic in flight and dissociation and collapse in freeze.

So according to Porges our level of safety is determined by the degree of activation of the social engagement system and the corresponding disablement of the fight, flight, freeze response.

Therefore from a neuroscience perspective we see the felt sense of safety arises from a neurological state, i.e. the response of the amygdala, and the  response of the social engagement, into the fight, flight, or freeze response. All of which operates below our conscious awareness.

Our basic needs and how they influence our feeling of safety

I’ve become curious, due to a number of events in my life, about exploring the effect of our basic needs on our feeling of safety and how much we depend upon others in a socially engaged manner for our sense of safety.

If we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our most fundamental need is for air, water, food, warmth and shelter. When these needs are met our nervous system will respond with a corresponding feeling of safety as long as there are no other threats, either real or perceived, in our environment.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs diagram

However aside from air, how many of us are self sufficient in providing these fundamental needs? We turn the tap on and expect water to come out, because someone has linked our home to the water supply providing us with clean water. I’m fortunate enough to obtain my water from a bore-hole on the land where I live, however after the drought this summer the bore hole ran dry, on turning on the tap there was a splutter but no water. My survival instincts kicked in, there was mild fear in my system and an absence of safety until I created a strategy to get water. On my own I was unable to fix the bore-hole problem and was totally dependent on others to link me to the mains water supply until enough ran fell for the bore hole to fill.

It’s the same situation with our need for food as most of us are dependently sitting at the end of a fragile food supply chain. I want to share another personal experience with you; during the snow in March 2018 I was snowed in, an event I wasn’t prepared for in any way and particularly in the food department, my fridge was empty. I made the long walk into my local town to get fresh food supplies and in the 24 hours since the onset of the snow the fresh food produce in the local supermarket had sold out with just a few onions and grapefruits left. Why? The delivery lorries couldn’t get through the snowy roads and people had panicked and brought food as if their supply may be cut off forever. Their nervous systems had registered a threat, meaning they didn’t feel safe, so they over brought fruit and veg to facilitate the return of a state of regulation to return to their nervous system. The availability of food affected the level of safety felt by the individual, those with food felt safer than those without.

Given our basic needs for survival are so dependent upon the water board to provide fresh drinking water, our supermarkets or farmshops to provide our food, the architects and builders who build our homes and the energy suppliers whether that’s wood for the burner, or fossil fuels for our boilers, getting our most basic survival needs, and therefore feeling our sense of safety, is intrinsically bound up in this fragile system of dependence upon not just other people but a constant supply of resources from the Earth.

The collective responsibility for safety

So back to my original point, that within self-development groups there is a shared belief that safety is our responsibility I would beg to differ. We have seen that safety arises from complex interactions within the brain and the associations between external stimuli and reinforcing events and the degree to which we are socially engaged.  I would further add that our basic needs will need to be satisfied in order to feel safe and this is our collective responsibility.

When we connect to the reality of our dependence upon others for the feeling of safety perhaps we can open to feeling our deep vulnerability as human beings, our fragile need for the Earth’s resources and for each other. Our safety is bound in the global ecological crisis we are facing on our planet, and I firmly believe this is the time for acting with responsibility towards our collective safety and all future generations through ensuring we have our basic survival needs met today and for the next seven generations.

Through taking action to sustain our planetary resources we open ourselves to feeling the interconnectedness of the web of life. Its this opening that brings us the connection with each other that we long for where we can feel safe enough to experience our compassion, love and empathy and to live with the knowing of the interconnectedness of all beings.