You are deep in conversation when someone unexpectedly taps your shoulder from behind. What do you do?
- Turn calmly to see who it is
- Duck away from the touch
- Turn sharply and grab the hand
- That would never happen because you always have your back to a wall
Someone who feels safe and relaxed is likely to turn calmly. Ducking or grabbing the hand are examples of startle responses from an activated nervous system. With mild hypervigilance, unexpected events are interpreted as threats. With strong hypervigilance, threats are expected and prepared for, such as keeping one’s back to a wall.
Preparation for danger
Hypervigilance is a primary symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Both consciously and unconsciously, after trauma it is natural to think, “I didn’t like how that went. If I don’t relax, I can keep terrible things from happening.” Muscles stay tense in an ongoing effort to prepare for danger.
In truth, feeling safe did not cause the traumatic event, and relaxed alertness is the best starting point to handle unexpected problems. When the cycle of nervous system activation and settling is complete after trauma, we naturally return to relaxed alertness. If the process of trembling and release is interrupted, we remain tense and jumpy, sometimes for years.
Trauma survivors often try to control the external environment to make it safe enough, or become resigned to always feeling unsafe. Victim-blaming contributes to this by telling us that it is the victim’s responsibility to notice danger and take action to avoid it. While awareness of red flags can sometimes help us detect danger, victims are not to blame for experiencing trauma.
If all goes well, children internalize a sense of safety within the contained environment maintained by parents and other caregivers. The wider world is uncertain, but the child is protected from danger and provided with both physical and emotional resources. The growing child alternates between exploration and retreat, risk and protection.
Many of us lacked childhood safety or lost it too early. As adults, we long for someone to protect and provide for us, unaware of other options to feel safe. We may also carry the remembered imprint of a small child who, surrounded by indifferent or hostile giants, decided that safety is impossible.
Safety as a guarantee
Those who have never experienced trauma, or who have buried all awareness of it, can easily believe that their choices and divine intervention have kept them safe. They define safety as a guarantee that nothing harmful will happen. Trauma shatters this innocent belief, requiring survivors to renegotiate their faith as well as a new definition of safety.
Safety as confidence and resilience
Safety is an internal experience of confidence and resilience in relation to the environment. An environment that one person experiences as unsafe and overwhelming, for example slippery ice with people rushing in all directions, might be safe and even delightful for an experienced ice skater on a rink.
One aspect of safety is tolerance for mistakes and uncertainty. Experienced skaters know they can handle a fall, so they can risk trying new moves.
Take a few minutes to notice what safety means to you. Is it something you long for, take for granted, seek out, or gave up on? What qualities in an environment help you feel confident and resilient?
Absence of threat
One reason survivors struggle to feel safe after trauma is the difficulty of proving the absence of threat. Even when the environment seems safe, an old danger could reappear or a new one fall from the sky at any moment. Does your current environment present a physical or emotional threat right now? What tools do you have in the present to handle a sudden threat? Do you trust your body to mobilize as soon as a threat appears? Can you imagine resting in the absence of an immediate threat?
Relax to feel safe
The brain can interpret long-term chronic tension as a sign of a threat, so sometimes we have to relax to feel safe, rather than feel safe to relax.
How would you sit, stand, and move differently if you felt safe? Imagine that you are protected and provided for, at least for a moment. How would it feel to be a cat sprawled in a sunbeam in the middle of the floor, completely unguarded?
Commanding ourselves to relax can be counter-productive when we criticize ourselves for being tense. Here are two experiments that can lead to more relaxation.
Experiment 1: Let go of your bones
Bring your attention to your upper arm just below the shoulder, and imagine the muscles giving your humerus a little more space all the way around. Find another place in your body that you feel connected to and try letting go of the bones there, too. Notice what happens, whether it is a deep breath, a sense of space, increased tension, or an inability to feel anything.
Experiment 2: Rest your shoulders on your ribs
Our shoulders often hunch toward our ears to brace against possible threats. Small neck muscles work hard to pull up the whole shoulder girdle, made up of shoulder blades (scapulas), collar bones (clavicles), and arms. The shoulders and arms are designed to be supported by the rib cage. Can you imagine your shoulder blades resting comfortably on your ribs? Can you imagine your arms resting downward, fully supported? Again, notice what happens.
A skill and a choice
Safety is an internal experience, a skill to be learned and a choice to be made. In the end, you just have to try it. In the absence of immediate threats, consider allowing yourself to feel safe, just for a moment.
The Girls Come Marching Home by Kirsten Holmstedt shows both the causes and effects of hypervigilance on woman veterans of the war in Iraq, as well as their struggles to feel safe back at home.
Shoulder girdle image modified from Wikipedia.