Creating Body-Based Safety
As human beings, it is important for us to all feel a sense of safety, whether that be in our external environment, in our relationships with others, or in our own internal bodies. But- as human beings, we can also acknowledge that this is not always the case. As we know, many external environments and factors are outside of our control, which can in turn lead to experiences of trauma, anxiety, stress, and overall difficulties. When we have experiences like this, our internal bodies are therefore impacted. Impacted how, you may ask? These symptoms can present differently for each person but here are some generalizations: Racing thoughts or “not being able to turn my mind off,” hypervigilance or “scanning the room or environment around me/us,” physical symptoms or “pounding/increased heart rate, sweaty body/sweaty palms, tension in our muscles, continual headaches or migraines, difficulty sleeping” and quite frankly, an overall sense of unease and/or shutdown. Many more symptoms can be present depending on your personal lived experience.
The main question here is: How can I feel safe in my body and/or understand why my body may be reacting the way it is when the situation around me is stressful and/or out of my control?
To begin, it is important for us to know that our body’s response is coming from the regulation of our autonomic nervous system. Noting that we all have experienced some sort of difficulty in life, whether that be categorized as trauma(s) or not, each of our nervous systems respond differently due to our past experiences, resources available to us, and daily living practices. Our autonomic nervous system is always on surveillance, well below consciousness, asking, “is this situation safe? Is this person a friend or foe?” Due to past lived experiences, this may be why at times we notice an increase in our anxiety in a “perfectly” safe situation. This tends to happen due to a trigger or reminder that may be occurring in the present moment that takes our bodies back to a previously traumatic or stressful time. This could be something as simple as a smell in the air or the way a person is speaking to us. The difficulty in keeping our bodies regulated in this moment, is understanding what the trigger is and letting our mind catch up to the sensations of our bodies.
The polyvagal theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges, is a wonderful resource in helping us understand why and how our bodies function the way they do, or we could say, “in service of survival.” Understanding that we all enter this world with needs of love, connection, and safety, we can thank our bodies for these automatic responses. Our autonomic nervous system is made up of two branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. As many learned in science classes growing up, our sympathetic branch is known for the “fight and flight responses” and our parasympathetic branch is known for “resting and digesting.” This tends to be the simple version- What we didn’t necessarily learn as we grew older is that these two branches send and receive signals and bodily sensations through 3 different pathways. In the sympathetic branch, we have the spinal sympathetic chain, located in the middle of the spinal cord and prepares us for action aka “fight or flight.” In the parasympathetic branch, we have the remaining two pathways called the Ventral Vagal Pathway and the Dorsal Vagal Pathway. These two pathways are located in a nerve called the “Vagus.” The Vagus Nerve is very important in terms of nervous system regulation and shutdown. The Ventral Vagal Pathway is one of connection, safety, and engagement, while the Dorsal Vagal Pathway is one of complete shut down and dissociation.
Dr. Stephan Porges created a visualization for us to use in our daily lives and in my opinion, a much easier way to understand our nervous system. We can now imagine our nervous system as a ladder (see visual below).
As we explore this ladder for ourselves, take a moment to reflect on what each stage of the ladder looks like for you. It is important to understand that we do not have to undergo or bear witness to extremely traumatic events to move up and down our ladders. Of course, we all would want to remain at the top of our ladders each and every day, but this is not reality. Here are some real-life examples:
I start my day with a nice breakfast and make sure I am hydrated as I go into work (I am at the top of my ladder). As I arrive at work, I see my boss has left a note on my desk requesting my presence in their office in the next hour. I suddenly notice my heart rate increasing and my mind beginning to wonder what this could be about. I begin to shift down a few rungs on my ladder to sympathetic activation, I am anxious. I go to meet with my boss, and they ask me to take a seat. As I am meeting with my boss and notice their overall positive demeanor regarding my work, I begin to feel less anxious. I realize my boss has requested this meeting to acknowledge my hard work and dedication as well as to ask my thoughts on an upcoming project. I notice I am valued in this position. I also notice my body feeling less anxious and tense. I am moving back up to the top of my ladder.
I am on the way to pick my child up from daycare after working the last 8 hours. On my way to pick her up, I am daydreaming about getting into comfortable clothes and having some down time. As I am doing this, I don’t realize that I am going 15 over the speed limit. Before I realize, I notice a cop car pulling out behind me and they suddenly turn their lights on to indicate I need to pull over. I pull over and end up getting a ticket. I am feeling angry, anxious, and all over frustrated with myself and the cop for not “cutting me a break” (I am moving into the middle of my ladder, sympathetic activation). I notice tension in my neck and shoulders and just want to hurry to get my child and go home. As I arrive at my child’s daycare, the teacher explains to me that my child has had a difficult day getting along with others. I hear what the teacher is saying but notice I am quite disconnected as she continually asks me questions (I am moving down my ladder to dorsal vagal activation - I am disconnected and somewhat dissociated). I get my daughter and go home, where I ask my husband to make dinner and deal with our child for the remainder of the night. I stand in the shower for over an hour and then zone out eating and watching tv for the remainder of the night.
I decide to go out to dinner with a good friend of mine and their partner. As we sit at dinner, I recognize what a good match they are for one another and how much I enjoy spending time with them. Although I recognize that they are good friends and overall people, I find myself getting irritated as they discuss their upcoming plans to travel with another couple (I am moving into sympathetic activation). I begin “getting in my head” and thinking about how different my life may be if I had a partner or if I would have stayed with my ex. I begin to feel somewhat depressed and disconnected to my friend and her partner (I am moving down my ladder to dorsal vagal activation). I am hearing my friend and their partner as they share their upcoming plans, but I am only physically there at this point. As dinner wraps up, I go home and lay in bed, full of self-pity. I end up falling asleep and wake up the next morning with little motivation for work and exercise. As I sit at the counter, getting ready to log onto work, one of my single friends’ texts me asking to make plans for the weekend. I can notice myself starting to feel slightly better but still struggling to get back to the place of “safety and connection.” I get on one of the many dating apps on my phone and read a pick-up line from a random guy in my DM’s. This frustrates me, but I notice myself gaining some energy (I am moving back up my ladder- to sympathetic activation). I put my phone down and use some of this energy to dive into my current work project. Two hours go by, and I decide to go for a light jog. After this exercise, I notice myself feeling better and I text my friend back to solidify plans for this weekend. I recognize I am never going to find a partner or sustainable relationship if I don’t put myself out there (I am now at the top of my ladder- ready to connect with others).
There are a multitude of ways we move up and down our ladders each day. It is important to note that when we are at the bottom of our ladder or “dorsal vagal activation,” we must then move back up through sympathetic activation or “fight or flight” to reach ventral vagal activation or “calm and safety.” This looks different for each person, but noticing when this is happening is a wonderful way to begin. We can increase our ability to notice these shifts in our body by practicing mindfulness exercises, breathing, grounding through our 5 senses, and any somatic technique. Googling exercises to stimulate your Vagus Nerve can be a wonderful place to start, as well. There are many exercises we can do and practice to increase our tolerance for whatever life may throw our way.
Here are some great resources I recommended:
Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory By: Deb Dana
Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection By: Deb Dana
Waking the Tiger By: Peter Levine
Polyvagal Safety By: Stephan Porges
Specific Vagus Nerve Exercises:
The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging in the Rhythm of Regulation By Deb Dana
Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection By Deb Dana