Episode 38 – The Feeling of Safety with Megan Land McCarthy
written by Megan Land McCarthy (Occupational Therapist (OT), Somatic Experiencing™ Practitioner) on 30/04/20
“I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home.”
Hi everyone. I know life has been a bit strange and unpredictable lately, and as a result, we are experiencing a lot of different feelings (frustrated, anxious, sadness, loss, peaceful, relaxed, etc.) and sensations (tingling, fluttering, tension, spacious, still, numb or energized, etc.) Furthermore, we are also getting bombarded by “helpful” suggestions on the internet of what we SHOULD be doing with our “free” time.
First, I want to state that the only thing you SHOULD be doing is taking care of yourself. Whatever that means to you. We all have different feelings and needs and as a result, how we tend to them differ. What is nurturing to one nervous system is not to another, or example some people are thriving with a schedule for them to follow and others this is overwhelming to their systems.
Nurture the nervous system
You will already be doing things throughout your day that nurture your system, whether or not you are aware of it. But in those times when you feel overwhelmed, look at your environment and see what is “too much”. Is it too loud? too bright? Not enough movement? Can you figure out what is missing?Can you get up and move to a new space that allows for you to sing without bothering others in the house, can you move to a space with natural lighting, or just get up and go for a walk?
For me, nature is always what nurtures my system. So even in those cold days when we were experiencing yet ANOTHER snowstorm, being able to look outside and even watch the snow fall was soothing. Just sitting with nature slows me down and I am able to settle and re-evaluate what I need moving forward. Any time we can add breathe will act as a reset to our system and provide that nurturing it is needing.
Our nervous systems need people… but not too much!
We are all feeling the loss of social interactions and physical connections and this affects our nervous systems. Our systems crave social connection. We are biologically wired to connect with others.
But, our need for connection sits on a continuum. Sometimes we need quiet and to be alone and other times we need to be surrounded. One thing we need to pay attention to is what we are getting from each of these situations. What is our nervous system taking in and needing?
In a time like this when our access to others is limited and often only via screens, it’s a good time to really sit with your nervous system and see what it “needs/gets” out of the time spent alone. When we take the time to sit and think about this and “notice,” we may find that we are more comfortable with being alone than we originally thought!
Other people help us feel safe
One thing that others do for us is help evaluate safety. We use others as a reference to deem situations, people and places safe. We do this by looking at others, reading their reactions and then checking in to see if we are feeling/noticing the same internally.
This leads me to the question – without the presence of others – how do you know you are safe? What does safety feel like? How do you deem people or places safe? What do you look for to tell you? What stands out to you right away when you think about this?
Knowing what is safe is a job of our nervous system. We take in sensory input and our system evaluates it and evaluates the risk and then matches what we are “feeling” to the actual risk of the environment. When we view the environment as safe, then our system regulates itself.
The science: safety and your nervous system
Dr. Steven Porges coined the term neuroception to describe our subconscious system for detecting threat and safety. We don’t have to think about whether or not we’re scared for our bodies to act scared, our bodies respond first. To be able to experience neuroception, we must be able to differentiate between safety and threat. Neuorception is the detection of both. To have an accurate read on the situation, we then need to be able to decipher correctly between the two.
So, for those who have had limited experiences adequately evaluating safety vs. threat due to trauma or abuse, we often find a mismatch. The nervous system finds all environments/people/situations as unsafe and our bodies physiology responds to the “threat”.
Growing your capacity for feeling safe
To be able to sit with yourself and identify different feelings and sensations can be hard and scary. Identifying our internal sensations, or our eight sensory system (known as the interoceptive system), is a great place to start. Our interoceptive system is our internal body cues – the ones we get when we are hungry, hot, tired, need to use the bathroom, and many other.
Taking the time to pay attention to these cues will give you insight into your system and whether or not it is aware, tracking the right sensations and if they are being “labeled” correctly.
There are different ways to learn to recognize our interoceptive cues:
- One is to carefully track these cues, make notes, sit with the sensations. See if they are the same every day, different times of the day, and if you note differences, what is different. Ultimately, we need to ensure we are tracking the right sensations and have the ability to notice and label them correctly.
- Experiment with them. For example, use different temperatures – what do you notice when you touch a hot item on your foot compared with a cold item. Other than the temperature, what other sensations do you notice?
For me, working with interoception is the perfect blend between my 2 modalities. Working with the sensory systems is one of my favorite parts of being an OT. Exploring interoception and how somatic sensations show up in the body, how we work with them and teaching to the new “safety map” that they produce, is such a lovely blend with my SE work.
Learn to trust your gut
We have all developed our own language for ourselves, one that tells us if we are ok, and even who we are in the context of others and our world around us. We develop this language early on and use it to guide our every interaction, choice and decision. If our early life experiences have been those where we often felt unsafe or unsure of who to trust, our somatic vocabulary then is often overly attuned to sensations associated with pain, danger, alertness, and other survival driven sensations.
We become frightened by “normal” sensations and don’t know that these are part of our bodies natural functioning. As a result, we tend to minimize or ignore these signals and become disconnected to our bodies cues. When we have not been able to trust these cues for a variety of reasons, we then can learn not to trust our “gut” or sensations at all. When felt, rumblings or cramping can also become overwhelming and scary. For people who lack a “safety map” due to past trauma experiences, this is one of the ways we can lead them away from the known danger map and help create that safety map.
The pay off
Not only does interoception help us understand what our bodies are telling us, it also helps us identify a variety of emotions. Interoception allows us the ability to identity our own emotions, others emotions, the ability to take others perspectives, understand the meaning behind language, the ability to communicate effectively, problem solve, be intuitive and flexible in our decision making, have self-awareness and health management and give us the ability to form ideas on how we feel about certain people, places or situations. It forms us and our all that we value in life. Therefore, being able to read our bodies cues is essential to gaining the most of our lives and our experiences. It impacts us each and every day. The goal is to be able to notice the body signals, connect to the signals and the emotions that accompany them. Once this is established, then we are able to regulate the body by choosing the appropriate action.
Once you know how to feel safe, you can take bigger risks too!
Research shows us that by seeking out discomfort and uncertainty you can diminish anxiety. When you are able to face challenging situations using a new set of skills- voluntarily stepping out of your comfort zone- you can actually quiet down the alarm center of your brain and create a larger tolerance for new sensations, experiences and situations. By developing a larger range of sensations, we are better able to track, label and understand what is going on in ourselves and the world around us. We are open to more possibilities. Taking the time to sit with even micromovements or glimpse of safety can help you move to a place of curiosity to explore more sensations without avoidance or judgment. To become resilient, we have to be able to trust that we will know how to navigate our way through discomfort.
By tuning into your nervous system, learning to trust the cues, establishing a new safety map are a few of the goals we can achieve working together, and what I wish for all. The benefits of this work will impact your health and well-being, your inter-personal relationships and how you navigate in the world. Reach out if you feel you have the courage to take this first step. Together we can do hard things.
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Porges, S. W. (2004, May). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.
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