We can know we are safe and still not feel safe? We come into the world wired for connection and safety. How do we shift from the appearance of safety to the experience of this at a neurological and physiological level? 

While we may think our brains are in charge, our daily experiences begin in our bodies and with the autonomic nervous system. It guides what we do, how we do it, and how we feel. It also shapes our experiences of safety and connection. Our nervous system loves congruence between how we feel and what we feel at a visceral level. 

“An embodied sense of safety requires both the reduction or resolution of cues of danger and the experience of cues of safety.” (Porges & Lewis 2009)

So how do we begin to feel what we know to be true inside and out and vice versa? The autonomic nervous system is the place to start when healing from trauma and long-term chronic stress. Our autonomic nervous influences every aspect of life, it is embedded in our physiology and physical sensations, our social engagement system, it influences our brain, thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and our ability to feel focused and calm.

Healing from complex trauma is lifelong, there will be moments of great insights and times when life seems unbearable and too much to cope with. Learning how to navigate and experience life after trauma is rooted in reclaiming the Autonomic Nervous System.

This system controls and filters communication from our outside world and body, (80% input from our body to our brain and 20% from our brain to our body). These neurobiological connections shape our world and daily experiences, they either connect us and bring us closer together or separate us from ourselves and others. It shapes how we feel and influences how and what we do.

At the center of the autonomic nervous system is the vagus nerve. Dr. Stephen Porges expanded our understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System relating to Chronic/Trauma stress with Polyvagal Theory in the 1990s. At the core of his discoveries and work is the principle of feeling safe and connected which our nervous system is designed to decide for us. However, we can extend deliberate action and extend control over our nervous system states to allow us to make decisions for ourselves and restore balance to our autonomic nervous system.

To help us begin to support and explore this theory, I would like to share a fundamental practice that I encourage my clients and students to incorporate into their daily life as a resource to help repair the nervous system and support healing. This practice is as important as sipping water before you get thirsty. As you already know, when you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated. By implementing this practice you effectively hydrate your sense of safety.

This is the practice of ‘Micro-Moments of Safety’, stopping to acknowledge and feel the truth of ‘safety in a moment. Your nervous system will forever identify threats and dangers following chronic stress and traumatic experiences which is helpful at the right time for our survival. However, this need not be the case, for you in your life today. Deliberately scanning for available true moments of safety in the present moment helps to dial down the ‘survival response system’, fear and anxiety. 

The realization that situations can be very difficult and emotionally overwhelming, without being unsafe. These micro-moments of safety are gentle, subtle reminders to the nervous system stuck in overdrive, that you are in control and that you can discern the threat and danger level. Research shows that to influence positive change in our brains we must pause to absorb positive experiences for at least 30-60 seconds regularly. Taking in the truth of these micro-moments of safety will help to bring change at a physiological level. This conscious and very deliberate action has the power to create profound shifts in your nervous system states. These moments are vital to soothing the survival/stress response and to support the development of new neural pathways, supporting your healing and growth.

To positively change our autonomic nervous system we need to be able to focus and direct our attention. Dr. Andrew Huberman states
“ Memories are hard to erase, however, the emotional load can be lessened”.

The only way one can experience truth is to be truly present, reshaping the past profiles embedded in our nervous system, lessening the load. By choosing to deliberately and consciously take in all that is true about what is basically ok and safe in the present moment regularly, even if it feels difficult, will create change.

Dr. Andrew Huberman’s research has shown that ‘stress and agitation is the entry point to neuroplasticity’ and that this can begin to change the maps of the brain laid down by previous experiences. Reinforcing positive plasticity, to support healing, rather than over learning from passive plasticity. 

Reinforce this process by writing every night about at least one moment when you felt a sense of safety. Write about how it felt within your body to feel safe? What did you feel? and where within did you feel this sense within you? Was it a deep sigh, a softening of the eyes, less tension in your back, shoulders, and neck, did you nod your head? Could you feel a buzz around your body, a loosening of a gripped hand?. How did this truth change your physiological state?. If you like to draw, add a picture, write a poem, create a mantra, journal, and most importantly begin to share your experiences with people who care about you, who know about your struggles and suffering and that may also be a therapist. The more you do to absorb the experience the deeper it sinks into your nervous system and brain and that is when real changes begin to happen to support your healing.

This does not mean that we ignore feeling scared, fearful, anxious, terrified, and afraid, no. This does not mean that we will never experience a somatic or emotional flashback again, no. It means we hold and nurture how we feel while also redirecting our attention to the truth of the moment. Our nervous system is capable of holding the truth of both the past and the present.

‘Our nervous system is capable of holding both moments of safety and moments of survival’.
Deb Dana, Anchored

By deliberating and purposefully redirecting your attention to the truth of now, the intensity of past experiences can begin to lessen. The nervous system is capable of repairing and we can support and influence this in subtle ways like this.

For many this practice may be very challenging at first, that’s actually considered a good thing in learning terms. As a note of helpful reassurance, the nervous system and brain learn from challenging/stressful experiences quicker and better than it does from more comfortable and easier experiences. When a task requires effort and is even slightly challenging, stress chemicals are released. The stress chemical epinephrine/adrenaline is also a neuromodulator and is actually the gateway to neuroplasticity. Repeatedly doing this practice no matter how challenging it may be, will influence your plasticity to adapt in a positive direction. Forming stronger neural connections for safety and connection over time. The important thing to remember is don’t stop when you start feeling good. The brain will continue to grow in the direction of what you focus your attention on.

For many years you may have heard the statement ‘your attention follows your thoughts’. It might better serve us to rewrite this as our thoughts follow our attention. We can focus our attention, on something and away from thoughts. We can use our sensory awareness, our eyes, ears, sense of smell, touch, and taste to take in ‘micro-moments of safety’.

In summary, the keys to this practice are:
Consciously notice a moment of safety that is true and in the present
Focus your attention here for between 30 to 60 seconds
Feel how this feels in your body
Before bedtime recall it in as much detail as possible
Share your experience with someone, even repeat it to your pet or yourself if you don’t feel there is anyone who you trust to share it with.
As a side note
It is also ok to hone in on and recall one significant moment that really stood out for you when you were in a regulated nervous system state.

If you suffer from chronic/ trauma stress, the limbic/survival system of the brain is primed and will continue to ‘make choices for you’ it will focus only on real or perceived threats and dangers, long after the danger and situation have passed. Leaving you feeling trapped and with feelings that are reliving horrible experiences.

‘The nervous system needs the active appearance and experience of cues of safety.’ (Porges 2015)

The body has a profound influence on the brain and when we repair and recruit the autonomic nervous system we can begin to tolerate levels of arousal that may be triggered. This can help to build a greater sense of agency over your physical, mental, and emotional health and open a doorway to recovery. All with deep tenderness and compassion for oneself.

Roseanne Reilly

Advancing your ability to heal and repair your nervous system