What does safety mean to you?
Safety relates to our physical and emotional wellbeing. It is being protected against dangers and comfortable to live without risk of harm. There are three levels of safety including internal, micro, and macro.
Internal safety is when we feel comfortable, secure, and protected within ourselves. This could include in our emotions, thoughts, or simply within our physical body. We could feel unsafe internally due to abuse, sexual assault, struggling with unhealthy thoughts, or overwhelmed by our emotions or stress. There has been times when I am in an emotional spiral and having dark thoughts and feel unsafe within myself. What does it look like to feel safe internally? This could be feeling balanced and not overtaken by emotions or past traumas, or it could be feeling comfortable to be yourself, to feel whatever feelings you feel, and be in your body with feelings of acceptance and trusting yourself.
Micro safety is being safe within our immediate relationships, living situation, our daily habits, work, and social interactions. There could be a number of reasons why peopl feel unsafe in these areas. A small example from my life is from the last apartment I lived in. I loved the apartment at first, but the longer I lived there the more I felt uncomfortable with my neighbors because of their lifestyle, their arguments, and unsettling noises. I was on edge all of the time and even started wearing ear plugs or headphones 24/7. I would get frustrated with myself because people arguing and yelling is normal for a lot of family systems, but it was so triggering for me that I just wanted to run away. I laughed with my grandma about this once because even though I did not know these people and the argument had nothing to do with me whenever I would hear them arguing I was definitely going to be falling apart before the couple who was actually arguing. Because I felt unsafe emotionally within my home it impacted other areas of my life too and even my physical wellbeing because I had such a hard time sleeping and I was not able to enjoy my space. It is so interesting to compare that situation to my current living situation. I feel comfortable and my neighbors are very nice. Because I feel emotionally and physically safe I have found that I am crafting more, hanging out at home more, dancing and singing around the house, even gave my neighbors gifts for Christmas, and I got a pet rabbit. Feeling safe in my immediate context has been a game changer.
Macro safety is when we feel safe within our community and in society. Factors that could contribute towards not feeling safe include living in communities with violence or not feeling accepted in society because of racism, classism, agism, or any other “ism” that puts people at a disadvantage. This would also apply to groups that face stigma due to having physical or mental illness. Not feeling accepted, wanted, or valued in society can have a huge impact on whether or not a person or even group of people feels safe. I saw someone post on social media recently that they are tired of this “woke crap.” This is how the dictionary defines woke as an informal adjective, “alert to injustice and discrimination in society, especially racism.” I just want to note that even if you are not in a group or space where you feel unsafe within your community or society, having empathy for others is being willing to consider someone else’s perspective and situation and how that might impact them, even if it is not your particular experience.
Safety & the Brain
Our brain, specifically our amygdala, is constantly scanning for signs of danger. It is sometimes referred to as the smoke detector of the brain. The amygdala can be triggered by a danger of a physical or emotional nature. There could be times where the amygdala communicates with your body that it is in danger in times when you are actually safe, due to being triggered by something around you, whether that be a smell, tone, appearance, or sound that reminds the brain of a past danger.
Our nervous system has two different responses being sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic just means our nervous system is activated by danger or stress. Whereas parasympathetic is when we experience calm and relaxation. It is incredible how both states of impacts our whole system. This is due to the vagal nerve that runs through our body, as well as hormones that are released during times of stress and danger (Dana, 2020). You can see this demonstrated in the image below.
How Safety Impacts Us
The autonomic nervous system ladder is a concept from Polyvagal theory (Dana, 2020). Author Deb Dana, has written several books that discusses this well and I would recommend these if you want to dive into this concept deeper: The links below are my referral links for Amazon:
When we feel safe we are able to be our best selves, be engaged, connect with others, and build resilience. Like displayed on the ladder as our safety decreases, we disengage and go into one of three survival mode of flight, fight, or freeze. Safety is essential to thriving (Dana, 2020).
Evaluating Your Feeling of Safety
Here are some reflective questions to journal or think about to consider safety and how it is impacting you:
- How can you increase your feelings of safety?
- Think of a time when you felt safe and secure within yourself. What was that like and how did it impact you? How did you feel or what kind of thoughts were you having? Were you in a certain situation or atmosphere that contributed towards feelings of safety?
- Imagine what it would be like to feel safe internally. What kind of circumstance would you be in or what kind of feelings or thoughts would you be having?
- How has safety impacting your thriving or resilience?
- Where do you feel you are on the autonomic ladder?
You are worth protecting and are a valuable person who should be kept safe internally, in relationships, at work, in the community, and in society. If you are in crisis or in danger here are some numbers you could call for 24/7 support:
- Emergency Services: 911
- Crisis Text Line: 741741
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
- Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services Administration Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP
Dana, D. (2020). Befriending Your Nervous System. Speech. Audible.
Source of Autonomic Ladder image: https://sequencewiz.org/2019/10/16/how-to-deal-with-your-daily-ups-and-downs-the-four-rs-of-restoring-connection/
Threshold Globalworks, founder of Social Resilience Model. https://www.thresholdglobalworks.com/