Credit: Jessica Ticozzelli, Pexels
20 February 2021
The absence of danger isn’t enough to feel safe. We experience safety when we feel connection with ourselves and others.
Mammals need ‘conspecifics,’ others of the same species. In other words, humans need other humans. Our evolutionary success as a species stems from our biological imperative to cooperate and connect. Traumatic events cause us to disconnect from ourselves and the present moment, and consequently, isolation, hopelessness and misery inevitably follow.
Dr Stephen Porges (2006) suggests that our primary goal is to socially engage. Infants, from the day they are born, need to engage their primary caregiver to survive. Facial expressions, body movements, crying and vocalisation provide cues for testing out social relationships and safety. Through this social engagement, we get our needs met and we also bond with others and learn about ourselves, relationships and the world around us. This is the basis for self-regulation.
In environments where abuse and neglect occur, the instinctive drive towards social engagement is too dangerous to pursue, so our nervous system automatically engages our fight or flight response to keep us safe. And, if fighting or flying is not an option, then a third response will involuntarily engage and this involves collapsing, withdrawing or what’s described as ‘feigning death’. This response will often be seen with people who are victim of trauma.
If a person’s nervous system has not experienced safety, then the social engagement system is by-passed in order to engage in protective survival–based responses. Consequentially, people who have experienced complex relational trauma will often struggle to socially engage as their nervous system wired to defend against threats.
The social engagement that builds bonds, can only occur in safe conditions. That’s why, to help my clients move from a threat response to social engagement I first try to establish safety. This is something we actively work on as part of mirror therapy. This happens when the therapist’s compassionate bearing helps the patient to reconnect with the suffering self.
A perception of safety is something we need to take into account when caring for others. The smell of perfumes and aftershaves, the use of lighting, images and sounds, can all be potential triggers of our implicit memory system, and may trigger a threat response. The reality is that we often won’t know what the trigger is. The key message here is to not make assumptions about what is safe! Through awareness of our own social engagement system and being open and attuned to a person’s needs, while being aware of triggers and promoting safety through predictable and consistent responses, we can help to build a sense of safety that opens up opportunities for rich and rewarding relationships.
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