In nature, when an animal is afraid, all the other animals will either run away from it or attack the shit out of it. Humans are kinda the same way, unfortunately. When we’re anxious and afraid, we broadcast physiological cues of threat, and the people around us react accordingly.
This is why fear of rejection and abandonment often leads to actual rejection and abandonment. It’s why anxiety — experiencing failure in advance — is most likely to produce the outcome you most want to avoid. Why worry is such a self-fulfilling prophecy, like praying for something you don’t want.
But why is that?
I’m about to draw heavily on the work of Dr. Stephen Porges (developer of The Polyvagal Theory) who’s essentially dedicated his whole career to studying the science of safety. No way I can do his work justice in this brief article, but I’d like to give y’all a little sample.
The Autonomic Nervous System
When you’re experiencing physiological cues of safety, your body supports the homeostatic functions of health, growth, and restoration. It gives up its defense resources to promote exploration — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc. This is the opposite side of “fight or flight” that they refer to as “rest and digest.” In this state, you are grounded, calm, socially engaged, curious, open, mindful, compassionate, and have access to both your feelings and your thoughts.
In short, when you feel safe, you become safe.
When your nervous system moves into a state of threat, you may have trouble paying attention, engaging, learning, and mentally functioning (why kids get examnesia on the trigonometry final). Under physiological cues of threat in our bodies, we may cross paths with migraines, IBS, erectile dysfunction, fibromyalgia, and all kinds of unpleasant things. With increasing nervous system arousal, we move from frustration to rage, from worry to panic, and we experience changes in heart rate, blood pressure, pupil size, body temp, etc. We literally lose control of ourselves, and eventually we may completely dissociate or collapse in despair.
In short, when you feel a threat, you become a threat.
So let’s just take away all the threats, then everyone will be safe and happy!
Well… it isn’t so simple. This is certainly what many people try to do in their infinite pursuit of more money, power, property, prestige, control, and security. But does any of that shit ever actually work? Dr. Porges says that removing cues of threat is not sufficient to be in a state of safety; we must change our sensitivity to cues of threat.
Our nervous systems “learn” from our experiences and become sensitized to detect cues of safety and threat in unique ways. For some people, being still, quiet, and well-behaved was how they got their parents’ love (a fundamental childhood need). For others, being still was how they enraged their parents for being “lazy, little, ungrateful, good-for-nothings,” and they had to constantly do things in order to prove their worthiness. So for these people, stillness could be a triggering physiological cue that sends their autonomic nervous system into a flaming shit-spiral of dysregulation.
Therefore, feeling safe is a lot more subjective than one might think. People with profound trauma histories are highly mobilized individuals, so asking them to sit down, talk about their feelings, journal, or meditate may be like setting their nervous system on fire and calling it “healing work.”
Well-intentioned, but not always helpful.
True healing isn’t always about listening to your therapist, but listening to your own ass physiology. What feels safe to you? What feels threatening? Pay attention to that. Respect those feelings and respond to them lovingly. Over time and with repetition, your body will “learn” that someone is actually paying attention, and that the world can be a safe place with a healthy self behind the wheel.
When people say things like, “This is so dumb — I shouldn’t be feeling this way!” or, “Why am I acting like this? It doesn’t make any sense!” it’s clear that their mind and body are at war. Trauma is a disintegrating and dissociative experience, so healing is necessarily a complex journey of reintegration and re-embodiment. Learning to co-regulate your head and visceral organs. It requires that you monitor your heart, your gut, your mind, body, and nervous system. Now’s not the time to further compartmentalize and condemn disparate parts of yourself.
Healing and creating safety is seldom the result of a rational choice to simply do what you think the solution is. In fact, if your body is screaming to be heard, I can think of nothing more re-traumatizing and disempowering than ignoring those signals, especially through self-destructive means of numbing or escape. Dr. Shaili Jain adds in her book The Unspeakable Mind, “Another problem with self-medicating is that it feeds directly into the cycle of avoidance that is a core symptom of PTSD.”
I always say that healing involves both cognitive and somatic work (i.e., mind and body). But the more I learn from both studying and working directly with clients, the more I see that feeling safe enough to be in your body in the present moment is prerequisite to all progress.
*This article contains an Amazon affiliate link to the book mentioned
3 thoughts on “Cues of Safety and Threat”
I’ve always put physiological effects before physiological issues since I agree that all reactions start there first and are very underrated…..we are all very simple creatures so I would agree with your article..excellent
Complex… but ultimately, yes, we are rather simple and predictable, haha. Basically turbo-charged monkeys with computer chips 😂
Beautifully articulated as usual—and the highlight of my already very sunny spring Saturday. Thank you, Adam!😎