What makes us feel safe? The presence of a compassionate other? Someone’s physical touch? The sense of feeling loved and nurtured? I’m not sure if safety is an emotion or a state of being. Maybe it’s both. In my work with women and children who have experienced trauma, I’ve become very aware of what it looks like when someone does NOT feel safe. Social engagement becomes nearly impossible. Survival is on the brain. Digestion slows down or stops. Pupils dilate. Breathing speeds up. All senses are on high alert, registering every sound, every smell. Creativity and problem solving go out the window. All that matters is finding a way to feel safe. In children, this usually looks like hyperactivity, lack of attention, defiance, withdrawal, or stomachaches. When I ask clients what makes them feel safe, they usually have a hard time answering. It is easier for them to identify times when they’ve felt unsafe. Everything in their life becomes filtered through the question, “Am I safe?” I think safety is more complicated than we realize. We’re not just talking about physical safety. While that is important, there are many facets to our well-being and sense of safety in this world. Emotional safety, spiritual safety, relational safety…most of us have certain situations, places, or people that make us feel unsafe or uneasy, but we may not even realize it because we’re so desensitized.
Research tells us that the number one thing that mitigates the effects of trauma in someone’s life is one positive, healthy relationship. This could be a parent, a teacher, a friend, a counselor. All it takes is one safe person.
Even when our surroundings don’t feel safe, the presence of a friend somehow makes that uneasiness disappear. I feel much safer walking somewhere late at night when a trusted friend is by my side. There is comfort in walking into a new situation when someone is holding your hand. Going through pain and suffering is somewhat more tolerable when you are supported by the kindness and love of another.
The ocean is not safe. Seemingly less and less safe in recent years. Yet I’m drawn to it like nothing else. For me, being at the beach is the safest place I can be, because my family was always there. It was safe because of laughter, beach snacks, and “elevator” waves. It was safe because I was wholly loved and accepted: sunburn, sand, and salty hair included. It was safe because it was familiar. As one of the oldest cousins, it was my job to help the younger ones learn to feel safe jumping in the waves. Even when my little sister became taller than me, I still felt the need to hold her hand. Safety in this sense is completely subjective. I didn’t have space to feel afraid because the relationships around me promoted safety and security.
While our family has discontinued our yearly beach trip, the weeks we spent there will forever live in my heart. I am more courageous, more willing to face the waves, and understand the deep value of uninterrupted family time.
The world feels pretty unsafe these days, and it’s so important to balance the devastation in the news with things that promote well-being. What makes you feel safe, and at ease? Spend time around those people, doing those things that give you a sense of security. Your nervous system will thank you, and you’ll probably contribute to others around you feeling safe in the process. :)