I was fascinated with spy movies and books when I was little, and in particular with the concept of a safe house–that place in a secret location where the spies knew they would be safe. Anyone who has experienced trauma knows the feeling of being unsafe. In response, our bodies, in their infinite wisdom and intelligence, develop coping mechanisms so that we don’t lose hope. We disassociate, live in fantasy worlds, develop addictions–all to escape the horror of our lived realities.
What we really need is to feel safe. We need a safe house.
Stephen Porges, creator of the Polyvagal Theory, says that “safety is the cure”. I have tried numerous times to talk myself out of difficult emotions or panic attacks and it never works. I can thoroughly understand that I am safe, but experience terror. Our physical reactions to our emotions are old, some of them older than our conscious memories. As Deb Dana, author of many books on the Polyvagal Theory, says, “Our biological state is not a psychological condition.” Maybe it is the sound of a dog barking or a kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes or maybe it’s your perception that someone isn’t listening to you that sends you into a downward spiral. For me, it’s anything that makes me feel alone in the world, oh and negative critical people are a real struggle too.
But the problem is NOT ME; the problem is NOT YOU! What is happening is that when we feel unsafe we retreat to those familiar coping mechanisms. So rather than beating ourselves up for feeling anxious or angry, maybe we could send ourselves some love and ask what is making us feel unsafe and what would help us feel safe again.
This will look different for everyone and definitely be wary of anyone telling you what you should do! It’s important to honor your felt experience! For some people breath work is grounding. For some people it might be visualizing a physical location or memory that brings up a sense of joy or safety, or for some getting a hug from a loved one. Maybe it would be helpful to sit and think about what places and people and exercises produce a sense of well being in you, that allow you to sigh and let go and trust. And then, when those overwhelming moments inevitably arise, you have a toolbox. I’ve got lots of things in my toolbox and what works really depends on the day. Sometimes I need to be alone. Sometimes a hug from my husband is the cure. Sometimes it’s writing poetry or journaling and giving myself permission to own my story and then release it to the page.
Sometimes it’s taking a walk in the early morning hours, feeling held by the earth, and being guided by the rising sun.