The psychology of safety
December 2, 2016
By Dr. Nancy Gahles, DC, CCH, RSHom(NA), OIM Feeling safe is a prerequisite to happiness, health, and wholeness, and to normal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual development. The emotions associated with feeling safe begin in utero and follow us throughout our lives. The element of safety allows us to take risks. Conscious choices, where we evaluate the risk and the reward, lead to stable, mature mental and emotional development and opportunities for creativity. When developed properly, sense of safety becomes an inner state of security and well-being, and allows for pursuit of relationships, bonding, and receiving or sharing attributes that create happiness. With the rash of violence in recent times both in the United States and worldwide, an undercurrent of insecurity has fomented. The outcome of the recent presidential election elicited a similar response. People reported feeling insecure and unsafe both in their own neighborhoods and beyond. A study conducted shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings concluded that teenagers developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) watching the tragedy on television. They felt unsafe, though they were not physically present at the bombing. The repetition of violent events in the media is one salient factor of provocation. Watching a frightening event causes stress hormones to rise. Repeatedly watching or listening to stressful events or forecasts sends a signal to a person’s cells, indicating that they are under attack. Human beings are complex, adaptive systems with interconnected, self-organizing networks. We adapt when presented with stressors, whether from outside environments or inside ourselves, such as inflammation or pathogens—the organism will transform, or self-organize, through a larger stress response network of nervous, endocrine, immune, and metabolic pathways to return the organism to homeostasis equilibrium. In the face of continued, prolonged threats, whether perceived or real, the human adaptation system can become overloaded and unable to mount a proper defense. In this case, we become vulnerable to emergence of chronic disease. Physical chronic diseases result from ruminating on threatening past events or anticipating future attacks. Rumination causes inflammation, which causes diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes, and a spectrum of autoimmune diseases. Chronic disease may also present on the mental plane as anxiety, sleep disorders, irritability, PTSD, deterioration of social relationships in work and at home, and focus and concentration problems. Those who are vulnerable to maladaptive responses to threats and security are typically previously exposed, primarily in utero, as a result of childhood trauma or threatening experience in any phase of life. A child’s sense of safety is at-risk when they are constantly exposed to fights, arguments, and physical and emotional violence. Verbal abuse is also a threat to safety. The recent political environment, where candidates verbally abuse and threaten one another, may provoke PTSD in those at risk, and sows the seeds of disease in others. In the face of such behavior, we must create skillful strategies to counter the ill-effects of these stressors and encourage healthy adaptation:
- Set aside time to be still, to detach from the news or media.
- Encourage family or partner time that focuses on activities in nature, such as walking, swimming, biking, hiking, and picnics.
- Develop rituals, practices, acts of kindness, and consideration. Reflect upon something “bigger” than yourself.
- Create “pockets of positivity,” moments and experiences that generate positive feelings, especially feelings of safety.
- Stay focused in the present moment. Be present only to what is happening in the reality of each moment. Allow nothing else into your experience—no yesterday, no tomorrow, no judgment. This is mindfulness meditation.
- Participate in homeopathy. When overcoming persistent stressors proves challenging, the homeopathy can induce the adaptive changes needed for the individual to right itself, self-organize, and return to equilibrium.