Why Your Nervous System Needs Internal Safety Over External Certainty
As humans, we are programmed to seek answers. So when those answers fail to immediately surface, we might experience the sense we are losing control. This fear of losing control may be deeply hidden or show up as full-blown terror. We may compulsively seek ways to create an illusionary sense of control, to compensate for the absence of safety/certainty. (At the root of many disorders, such as addictions or trauma responses, is the raw need to feel in control). However, the attempts to feel in control only ever serve as a temporary “fix” and end up controlling the person and the cycle perpetuates.
Accepting that we are not in control of quite a lot is ultimately very liberating. Once we realise/remember that as a direct by-product of ‘leaving alone’ what we can’t change, we are left with something very magical; the stuff we can control. We give ourselves permission to choose what we do with that. We get to enjoy, heal, invest in, transform, breathe life into, dissolve, sit with, learn from... Very empowering right? A sense of control which is healthy, accountable and gives us consent to preserve our peace, no matter what the external reality throws our way (or not even our way, but we fear it might be coming our way, so we panic in any case).
But how do we get to that nice, liberating bit? We begin by returning home, learning to trust ourselves. So, when turbulent times arrive, we step with confidence into our safe havens, settling into refuge within the perimeter of which we live and breathe – our own bodies.
“Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” - Bessel A.van der Kolk
It is understandable that we want answers. Some of us have been asking the same question for too long, some of us deserve answers badly, some of us strongly believe we cannot feel okay until we receive the answers we need, until the problem is solved, until the pain stops. There is space for witnessing the fear, anger, confusion. It is reasonable that letting go might feel like too much of an ask, especially when we are overwhelmed.
Letting go is powerful and creates space for answers, clear thinking and good choices. However, when our nervous system is not convinced it is safe to surrender, our priority is soothing that system. Explaining to a screaming baby, in theoretical, rational tones, that their mother is just in the room next door and coming back in a minute, does not mean baby will comprehend that explanation as truth. Baby won’t think “okay, great, I feel better now”, and instantly stop crying. Baby is too clouded by terror to experience the truth; that they really are safe. Baby feels threatened, baby is terrified mummy isn’t coming back. When mummy has returned, by witnessing her presence, by being cradled in mummy’s arms, baby can FEEL safe. Likewise when we are in our most extreme states, logical information is difficult to process. We need to FEEL on an experiential and somatic level that we are safe. Then our bodies will believe it. We can process the rational stuff. Then, we can consider letting go. Then, letting go won’t feel like such a big ask. Our bodies trust we are safe because our parasympathetic system reflects this truth. Our nurturing is the building blocks. The foundation of our safe haven is secured.
Safety might look different to each of us. We can begin by exploring what works. It’s important to distinguish the difference between what we run to for temporary comfort/a quick fix and actual healthy grounding techniques which will truly serve us. If we are used to running away from our bodies, beginning to step inwards may feel unsettling. Building up tools takes patience, curiosity and the willingness to treat ourselves like a worthy human being. A good way to identify if we are taking a healthy route or self-sabotaging is to ask what a person who honoured themselves would do. They probably wouldn’t drink themselves into oblivion to feel better, impulsively act out or spend 4 hours hunched up scrolling down their newsfeed. This discernment is not a reason to beat ourselves up or judge ourselves. It is very human to respond to life by running away, numbing out, overthinking, unfriending our bodies. Instead, we need to begin the process of changing our neural pathways, teaching ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves in healthy ways, and befriending our bodies. We are taking the first step towards coming home. We are learning, instead of escaping from our bodies when we experience suffering, to allow our bodies to hold space for that pain, so it moves through us to be released, instead of stored.
“We may feel ashamed to have certain problems or feelings, so we focus our anger and attention on a safer problem” – Melodie Beattie
Each time we choose to ground and create safety, we make it easier the next time. If we notice resistance when we begin, that’s okay. We can be gentle and remind ourselves that for a long time we were in protection mode, guarding against danger, afraid to let peace in. Just in case it wasn’t safe. We don’t need to sit upright in motionless silence for an hour if that feels too much. We might start by noticing our chest rise and fall as we inhale and exhale. Often we are so absorbed in the mental stories we tell, we numb out or think our ways into narratives that stir up sabotaging core beliefs. Then we assign the blame to our minds. Yet when our bodies have permission to feel, our brains find clarity, and the duality of our body and mind can work in balance for our highest good. In time, healthy habits can replace the ones no longer serving us.
The things we experience as threats to our livelihood, our families’ well-being, our routine, our sanity are all valid.. But unless we are about to be eaten by a lion, or are in some kind of immediate physical danger, our cortisol is usually working overtime and causing us more harm than good. When cortisol is released it sacrifices the functions that aren’t vital in a true fight/flight scenario. We know if we experience lingering anxiety and the fight/flight response is activated long-term, we feel exhausted and like we are running on empty. All those functions that are neglected to protect us from an illusionary danger are in jeopardy, and can therefore contribute to a number of health risks. We know that chronic stress has serious implications on our physical and mental health (e.g. anxiety, headaches, chronic fatigue, heart disease, digestive issues) and it is a journey to finding ways to alleviate that stress. In my experience, the most wholesome and natural remedy is to meet ourselves where we are at and to begin to treat ourselves with kindness. Valuing our bodies and minds by making healthy choices has momentous benefits on our quality of life, and therefore the energy we share with others.
It may take time out of our day to pause, breathe and find our way home, especially when facing the stuff that urgently demands our energy. But making good choices from a clear mind, a healthy heart and a peaceful place are always worth the time.