The more people I interviewed with trauma histories, mental health struggles, and pain, I began to see the key components that came up time and time again. It became clear that they didn’t feel safe, and as they started to feel better, they noticed this sense of safety.
"The pull to feel seen, heard, understood is wired into us as human beings, including being held in our pain or struggle." – Wellbeing Writer, Owen Morgan.
I noticed the constant message from the many podcasts I had listened to, the books I had read, and the videos I had watched. I felt drawn to explore the evidence and research from neuroscientists, therapists, and psychologists. It was so clear that to learn, heal and thrive, we need to feel safe. We also need to feel connected to other people, animals, or a place. The pull to feel seen, heard, understood is wired into us as human beings, including being held in our pain or struggle.
When we talk about feeling safe, it can be many things. Does the environment we are in feel safe? Is there a feeling of safety in our bodies? Do we feel safe around the people in our lives? Having somewhere to live, food to eat, and a lack of threat in our neighborhood all support a sense of wellbeing and safety.
Understanding Our Nervous System
When the Polyvagal Theory came into my life, it changed everything, as it gave me the understanding that our nervous system is in a particular state from moment to moment. We have the safe and social state (Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal), the Flight and Fight State (Sympathetic), and shutdown, fawn, or freeze state (Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal). Think of the latter as depression, the flight and fight being anxiety, and the safe and social being your calm and connected way of being. I mention all of this as feeling safe allows for more steadiness in our lives and brings the ability to make healthier choices. Taking the time to engage in learning and practicing daily habits can serve our overall health. I encourage you to go find out more about Polyvagal Theory and the nervous system in general.
The world will tell us to reach out for support and get help as we have periods of stress, low mood, and more prolonged mental and emotional struggles. So often, these things feelings are caused by a lack of safety, and the act of reaching out for help is just too hard to bear. Starting with the cultivation of safety is vital. It is an essential springboard to making transformative changes in our lives or healing our relationship with the lives we live. Put it this way; if you seek support from a therapist to help with your mental and emotional wellbeing and you don’t feel safe with them, it can halt progress. For example, does the room in which you have the sessions feel unsafe? If so, the chances of healing, improving your situation, and get better are unlikely. We must lay the foundation of safety down.
"This need shows we are all mammals at our core, and that need to survive is vital." – Wellbeing Writer, Owen Morgan
Many structures, pyramids, and concepts explain how to be a happy and healthy human, including Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The well-being world will say, ‘you must eat well,” “it is important to take care of your body,” “change your mindset, change your life,” “Take time out to have fun and engage in self-care practices.” All these can be useful and potentially helpful, which is excellent; however, we all need our basic needs met to engage with such life habits. I see our basic needs as the foundation of safety. The day I quit my business and went into full-time work, I set the intention of getting my basic needs met to start seeing a path to more stability in my mind, emotions, and life generally.
Just for the sake of being concise here, I will share my approach to it. We have a basic set of needs, including somewhere to live, something to eat and drink, some income or resources that supply shelter and food, and ideally, connection to other people as part of a community. All of these were key at the beginning of time for men and women and remain the same. These basic needs apply to third-world countries and the high-end Western world privilege. This need shows we are all mammals at our core, and that need to survive is vital. To engage with life’s rich tapestry of experiences and opportunities, we need our basic needs met first.
Stress is the main predictor of poor immune health, problematic gut issues, and mental health struggles for so many people. It is normal to experience a healthy amount of stress as part of our survival instinct and get our bodies ready to take on sporting events and deliver presentations. Stress isn’t bad, but prolonged stress can have a profound effect on our overall well-being. So many people I have spoken to had a lack of safety in their life, and many talked about trauma, severe life events, and a fundamental lack of stability in their life. These struggles include not knowing when the next paycheck is coming or feeling unbearably lonely.
The saying ‘Safety First’ actually rings true as an essential building block to life. I took that choice when going back to full-time work. I wanted a stable, steady, and secure way of life to meet those basic needs. Having a guaranteed income coming in meant that I could pay my rent, buy food and allow time to connect with others without any underlining stress or uncertainty. This may not be groundbreaking stuff, but it is so important to remember. I am so grateful for my job, and it allows me to work towards the other parts of my life and grow. We may all have times of feeling bored, dissatisfied, fed up, and depressed in our working life, and that’s natural, but meeting our basic needs with love, compassion, and understanding can allow us to enjoy the other components of the world and the life within.
Childhood Trauma Adaptations
I have interviewed many people with trauma histories and adverse childhood experiences. I have talked with adults suffering from PTSD and CPTSD, many of who experienced such things as war, car accidents, abuse, and significant losses. It can result in us being stuck in nervous states of fight and flight and shutdown. Earlier in my life, when I was told what to do dismissively, I would get angry, and if I got something wrong, I would go into a deep shame shutdown state. Though I was a high-functioning and socially open person, these waves of dysregulation in my nervous system would pop up a lot. My years of childhood trauma affected my ability to tolerate and regulate myself when things became uncomfortable. I wanted to feel safe, so I controlled my environment, my approach to others and had chronic people-pleasing behaviors. I tried to avoid anything that I felt I wasn’t good at or had a chance of failure. I was so exhausted having to hold all this control and would regularly be in a cycle of burnout and recovery. Healing a lack of safety from the past and feeling safe in our lives today is a crucial approach to living fully and being connected to our values.
The main takeaway is that a foundation of safety unpins everything this blog & film series goes on to explore. We start with safety first and build from there. Our body and mind are wired for survival, and that’s fantastic as we can live a potentially long life with resilience and steadiness as we find our ebb and flow with life’s joys and struggles. Our body can teach us what feels safe or not, and working with that with a sense of curiosity and compassion can allow us to learn, grow and connect to others.
Something For You To Ponder
What does safety look like for you? What helps you feel connected to others? What enables you to feel calm and steady? Who feels like a safe person to you? Is there a place that feels safe?
For more on The Awareness Space and hear the latest podcast episodes visit www.theawarenessspace.com
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