This blog accompanies the Emotional Systems podcast episode 9. Listening to my calming voice may be more beneficial than reading the words if you are struggling to feel safe in this moment. But I hope both give you a sense of solidarity and connection through any difficult times.
It is so often the case that we find ourselves dreading fear itself if we have already endured terrifying or chronically fear inducing experiences. After a year of shielding a highly clinically vulnerable husband with a covid age over a hundred... I personally find myself avoiding highly unpredictable, or predictably fear inducing situations, they just aren't worth it. The impact on my body can last for days. And in these times, fear inducing situations are easy to come by. My own story is impossible to completely disentangle from the emotional systems journey I share with you here. And why would I separate or sever it? It is my journey that fuels the passion to share with you. Without my understanding of emotional systems, I would simply not be authentically present in my life in the same way. I dread to think what it would be like for me and my family. So I plug away, and use this fuel to make a difference. I hope it helps.
The longer our experience of fear and terror has lasted, the more deeply that it can become engrained in the synapses. We know this is the same of other mammalian species, sadly like us, the fear networks of their brains can become ‘over’ alert too. Animals rescued from danger need help to calm their fear system when they find themselves safe in this moment, and feeling unsafe. The importance of soft, calming voices, of gentle predictable moments. Us frazzled folks all need them at these times, whether we are naked or furry mammals.
Like every other emotional system – the safety or fear system present when we are born is in the main objectless, like a free-floating system ready to learn about the world it finds itself in. With important exceptions (like the smell of cats for rats – they have that from birth without ever meeting a cat!) experience brings meaning, safe and fearful objects become known through our relationship with and learning within the world. While mammalian cubs are also learning about what they should fear in their world; for humans, it is clear that our imagination can become a prison for us, as our real-world fearful experiences can cause terrifying imagined futures as well as projection in the present.
In my experience, there are two interrelated keys to calming an over-alert safety system. The first is:
Experiencing actual safety.
It doesn’t need to be a state of bliss or total sanctuary, but some safety is needed. And it doesn’t need to be permanent – of course how could it be permanent.
So ‘I’m here safe in this moment’ is a valuable place to hang out.
I like this phrase. And while where you are might not be pleasant, unless we are right on the edge of terror because of the danger in our world, where we may survive better through escaping into 'not here', it is most likely to be the best place to hang out in our mind and our life.
Even in a pandemic or a war zone we can have a moment of actual safety now and again. Being safe is harder when, for instance we live with someone who puts us in danger, have health conditions, are really unkind to ourselves. It is harder when we experience discrimination against us, due to beliefs, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc. Danger is more present and finding safety is harder. But, I would still say it is not impossible. I can say this from experience of facing into personal hell, grounding in the tiniest moment and somehow finding it was still possible to breathe deeply and be in the now. When there is danger around many many corners, I try to notice when it has not yet arrived; to notice when it is slightly less than expected. What you can do when in that present moment is to actively notice that it is safe or safer right now. Thinking might help, words out loud might help more, but the safety system doesn’t speak good English in these moments, it listens to embodied responses – non verbal, body responses. So possibly you can breathe (you might have
stopped) or breathe a little deeper (it might have become super shallow) and longer outbreaths than inbreaths can be especially helpful – but I’m not gonna go too deep with breath work, there is loads around, and focusing on breathing can sometimes make us feel more scared for various reasons that I also won’t go into here. So possibly move, just a little, any part of the body, (and I encourage you to have a go at these movements now so you get an embodied experience, start collecting data on what impacts you and how… also they will be easier to remember when you need easy access to them in the future)
Perhaps start with rubbing just the tips of your fingers together, or looking around with your eyes, if not moving your head. If you can see something natural – a tree, the sky, a plant, an animal – perhaps give your self a few moments paying careful attention to that. If you are safe to do so, closing your eyes can help to reduce the amount of stimulation but that might also be too much. Just taking it one step at a time and seeing what is possible, collecting your own data – what feels a little safer / what feels a little scarier? What helps you calm and breath more deeply automatically / what gets you more alert to threat again?
There is no right or wrong, the principal here to hold onto is to notice safety when it shows up in your world. An activated fear response keeps us alert after danger has passed or between the passing of new waves of dangers… it is a fabulous mechanism that has kept our ancestors alive long enough to procreate! But it is a mechanism that can be interrupted by us to experience a little relief between the waves. Doing small action more often will have the most profound impact on your sense of safety and control, it will help you direct your attention, your mind and so your life. It will help you differentiate moments of danger from moments of safety and your ability to respond to the challenges in your life increase over time.
Let’s not pretend that this is the problem though… the chronic, repetitive, unpredictable danger is the problem. And with this additional capability – you will have more energy and power to deal with it. I don’t know what it means for you, I know what it has meant for me – speaking truth to power, facing the inequities in society, asking for more help, offering more help, spotting when I was recycling the external problems internally, and dealing with the problems in my life head on, rather than ping ponging between overwhelm and disconnection.
A highly alert safety system can stop us processing information effectively, gives us tunnel vision and other perceptual disruption... finding ways to calm the system and hang out in safety for a moment or two as often as possible will make a difference. If you deal with the moments when the safety system is on alert when you could be resting... you are likely to see more clearly what the challenges are that you need to face. And more able to notice the changes in the reality you are living in... 'I'm slightly safer' is important to notice in a pandemic.
A lot to take in here. So breath and come back to it if you need to, if you are ready for more... the second interrelated key is about:
We cannot separate our safety system which may have been dealing with threat for many months years or decades, from the other emotional systems. It impact our curiousity (seeking system) and playfulness, the way that we care and how good we feel, it impacts our voice – into submission or aggression, and for mammals, the relationship between connection and safety is impossible to separate. The reality is that for millions of years we are safe together with our clan, we are not safe for long alone. So for a safety system that has become frayed and frantic, and often because of our connection with others who have hurt us, it is still the route to calming our system to find safer connections.
So here I am encouraging that these three aspects to connection be honoured. Connection to ourselves, connection with others, and in our world…
These may put us conversely – more in touch with things that scare us. So start where it feels safest.
For some, the re-wiring of intensely activated fear responses will start with a connection with nature, with animals, with their relationship with dance, music, craft, creativity, work, productivity of many sorts. My experience is that connecting in a meaningful way with the laws of nature is a powerful antidote to the extreme places our minds and imagination can take us – and we each have our own unique way to do this. Taking time to collect your own data, to stay in what I call an emotional learning zone, so that you don’t flip between or hang out for a prolonged time in overwhelm and disconnection. If these are happening, can you try something a little easier, or more familiar, or completely different… there is no right or wrong.
The principal I’m encouraging you to play with is about connecting with the world in reality and hanging out with the laws of nature. If you are playing in nature and find yourself going off into fearful imaginings and predictions “I will never do this”, “I am useless”, “if I don’t do this, it is going to be a disaster” you know you are leaving the real world in this moment and are back down the rabbit hole of an overactive fear system playing out in your mind. At these moments, I have my own therapist in my mind - “Worry is the misuse of imagination” and I have breathed again.
As I mentioned in episode 8 with accompanying blog, Terry and Beatriz Sheldon conceptualised what others were calling the FEAR system as the SAFETY system, after decades of clinical evaluation and research. Bringing to the forefront the approach aspect of this system is revolutionary within our field - it shouldn't be but it absolutely is. We escape from fear but we just as powerfully approach safety. For anyone who has been for talking therapy - the majority of psychotherapists, counsellors, psychologists will spend 5-1000x more time on the dangers being avoided than the safety being approached. Balancing out these numbers so that feeling safe is practiced, valued, normalised, disentangled from 'not safe' is vital for therapeutic practice... you can see why yoga and embodied therapies work for so many, they already make room for repetitive experience, and in different ways, of connecting to being 'safe in this moment'.
Our innate urge to approach safety is just as important as the innate ability to respond to danger. A challenge is that an unconscious approach response might not serve us as well as a fully conscious and intentional one. We need to notice what we are approaching and what we are avoiding and check out if they fit with our long term needs, our values and our goals. Denying COVID is a great example of this... we want to approach safety and this is one super fast way of achieving this. The 7 emotional systems are ancient, working alone they aren't always sensible. They work best all together. Just allowing the safety system to make all our choices is going to work out badly. We need curiosity and assertiveness, care and connection, play and feeling good to accompany safety to stay grounded and to work in reality for a life well lived.
When I almost lost my husband after heart surgery, I’m sad to admit I found it hard to connect with him when he was recovering. I worked out that my unconscious response to approach safety was to avoid him, he was the person who represented the danger in my world. My ancient safety system was trying to get away from danger and towards safety, a response that didn't fit with my long term goals. The conflict within my emotional systems and the guilt were hard to bear. It sadly also generalised more widely, I found it hard to connect with people at all for some time. Not helpful at all - just when I needed support, I found myself lonely and separated from the people I loved in my life.
I found my way back and was able to consciously pay attention to how safe I was in this moment with him again. It helped when he was recovering, rather than relapsing - because our emotions are directly related to problems in our world. In the safe times, it was not easy but facing and disentangling the complex feelings inside was vital to face the reality we were living in and our capability within it. I cannot mend his heart and lungs, but working together we can learn to live as healthily as possible and be actively present so we can notice what is needed, when boundaries are being crossed, when we are failing and how serious it is.
We can only manage complexity with all our emotional systems activated. So I'll just repeat our way of coping and how the systems are showing up:I cannot mend his heart and lungs (safety system alert to this danger), but working together (connection and care systems) we can learn (play system) to live as healthily as possible (guided by feels good system) and be actively present so we can notice what is needed (seeking system), when boundaries are being crossed (assertiveness system), when we are failing and how serious it is.
The next episode of the podcast and corresponding article is about the importance of differentiating panic and fear (and anxiety and worry - because being incredibly clear about what is happening is the first step to moving forwards). The podcast and articles are all about helping provide cognitive scaffolding for the amazing emotional connection journey ahead.
I can't do what I do without also offering opportunities for connection; for coming together to learn, play and grow. So we have free BeConnected sessions and BeConnected workshops in the evenings, it's a gentle and safe way to connect with yourself, as well as others (you don't have audio or video on - only mine is on for the free sessions).
And we have just launched the opportunity to become an Emotional Heath Champion - Connect with yourself - Connect with others - Connect with the world. It's open to all humans, a programme that gives you opportunities to understand and know yourself, to connect more effectively with others, and to build a more powerful connection with the world. Find out more here. From my own experience you can't authentically remain on the first path... connecting with self... without also getting on the 'connect with others' path and 'connecting with the world'. And we can't maintain effective and healthy connection with others without also connecting with ourselves and the reality of our world.