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Safety First

Our need for safety is core to our survival. In order to keep ourselves safe, our nervous system alerts us to possible dangers. When we sense danger, we react. For most of us, once the danger has passed, we are able to return to some sort of equilibrium of feeling safe and secure. However, for some, especially those with histories of chronic stress or trauma, we get stuck in a pattern of sensing threat and danger anywhere and everywhere. Our ability to think clearly and logically is compromised. When this happens, we strengthen and fortify a maladaptive stress response, which over time, becomes so entrenched, that anything, no matter how benign, can trigger us.

Our nervous system has evolved over the past 500 million years from a reptilian brain to a mammalian brain. The vagus nerve is the main nerve of our Parasympathetic Nervous System (which is a part of our Autonomic Nervous System). It connects our brains to the rest of our bodies and helps to regulate the functions of our internal organs. When we react to stress, it releases a hormone that alters our blood pressure, increases or decreases our heart rate, stimulates our adrenal glands and influences how well or poorly we digest food, etc.

The ventral vagal (front part of the vagus nerve) responds to cues of safety whereas the dorsal vagal (the back part of the nerve) responds to danger. In linking the evolution of our nervous system to better understanding our psychological behaviour, American psychologist Stephen Porges developed The Polyvagal Theory in which he identifies 3 different Autonomic Nervous System responses.

The first is called Parasympathetic Immobilization or Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. This is where the individual slows down (Rest and Digest), or shuts down (Freezes). The Rest and Digest helps the body recover from stress by lowering the heart rate, blood pressure, etc. But the Freeze state, which also includes Collapse/Submit/Shut Down shuts the system down. While at first glance, it would appear that the Collapse/Submit/Shut Down response seems similar to Freeze, there are differences. With Freeze, the individual is hyper-aroused and there is increased heart rate and blood pressure. With Collapse, the individual is hypo-aroused and there is a decrease in the heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. With Freeze, the eyes widen, similar to a deer in the headlights. With Collapse, there is a blank stare.

Getting stuck in a Freeze response, we may feel lethargic, numb, depressed, dissociated and out of touch with our feelings. We may develop feelings of shame for not fleeing or fighting back in previous situations. When we are stuck in Collapse/Submit, we again feel ashamed, but also helpless and hopeless.

The second response is Sympathetic Mobilization. This is where the individual chooses a Fight or Flight response. If we get stuck in a Fight response, then we are easily irritated, frustrated, and quick to anger. We feel mistrustful and behave in hyper-vigilant ways. We may also choose to harm ourselves and have suicidal thoughts. If, on the other hand, we get stuck in a Flight response, we feel anxious, fearful, panicky or develop addictive behaviours to avoid feeling. We feel that the world is only safe to the extent that we can control it.

The third response is the Ventral Vagal or Social Engagement response. According to Porges, our ability to socially engage has taught us how to use our face, voice and language to reduce a threat. When our Social Engagement responds to trauma, we may do it in one of three ways: Attach/Cry for Help, Please and Appease and Tend and Befriend. Getting stuck in Attached/Cry for Help leaves us feeling vulnerable and desperately seeking others to protect us and take care of us. Getting stuck in Please and Appease (the ‘fawn’ response) means that we not only need to make sure that we are on the perpetrators’ good side, but also that we are constantly vigilant to avoid anything that might set the perpetrator off. And getting stuck in Tend and Befriend, means that we base our value and self-worth on how we exist in relation to others.

Living through the last three years of this pandemic has left many of us feeling alone, confused, frightened and traumatized. In our efforts to keep our loved ones and us safe, we may have developed some of these responses to the circumstances that surround us. If you are feeling stuck, please let me know. I’d be happy to help.

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