Whether you are conscious of it or not, your nervous system is being ruled by feelings of safety, or lack of. As parents we embody this for our children. Prioritizing their safety above anything else. However, as adults we often forget to put on our own safety mask first. Or, we don’t even realize we are in environments, relationships, workplaces etc where unconsciously we feel unsafe. Sometimes with associate feelings of safety with physical dangers or big traumas. Of course our brain will be scanning the environment for these high alert issues to keep us alive. These we don’t have much control over, and are usually a surprise, for better or worse a part of life.
Today, what I’m talking about specifically is the lack of safety we create due to the stories we run in the background of our mind, or our perception of a relationship or environment. A situation one person might perceive as being enjoyable, relaxing or safe, another might interrupt as being fear provoking or dangerous in some way. This is based upon past experiences which trigger fears, worries and anxieties. While these are not big traumas, the continuous feeling of being unsafe will keep the fight or flight nervous system in high drive.
When the nervous system kicks into protective mode, a whole cascade of physiological responses happen. These are normal and needed if we are actually in danger, however if it’s emotional danger due to fears from stories we create, the consequences of living in “fight or flight” can take its toll on the body and mind.
For example, a patient I had in the office was experiencing traveling chronic pain. Sometimes in the neck, sometimes in the low back. A flare of either region could occur without warning, leading to a day in bed and inability to take care of responsibilities. After a few sessions with her we realized that she is on continuous guard, always overanalyzing situations and conversations. Due to her shy personality she has a hard time expressing her needs, and stores her emotions internally. All this lead to a rigidity in her body, tension and excess stress. She had exercises from a previous physical therapist she was doing, but felt they didn’t really provide relief or sometimes even made the pain worse. After a few sessions we started to unravel the root source of her pain. Yes there were some physical imbalances we needed to align, but the underlying issue was the continuous stress due to not feeling safe. Once we developed a self care routine to help create feelings of safety and dial down the fight or flight response her flare ups and intensity of pain also decreased as well. Then surprisingly (or not) she started doing those exercises from her old PT- and started experiencing positive effects from them, because now we addressed the cause.
I believe her situation is so common. How do we unpack all this??
It starts by slowing and creating an awareness. Where and when do you feel unsafe, or triggered? This can be very subtle. Then developing an environment and community that supports you. This week start by snuggling up with your loved ones, or items that make you feel supported. Also, notice the stories that come up as the holiday approaches. My daughter loves her cozy stuffed puppy when she feels overwhelmed. What can ground and anchor you? When the nervous system moves from protective mode and fear based stories, then the healing and living (physical and mental) can truly begin.
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