How to feel safe amidst a world of threat

by Dr Samantha Masley, Chartered Clinical Psychologist
Aire Valley Psychology

Just now is unprecedented in so many ways. Humans are clever beings who have always worked hard to manipulate life to being as comfortable and pleasant as possible. We have internal drives to create, explore and connect and our imagination allows us to take these drives to new heights. For example, look at the music and art we produce, the space missions we have conducted. We are amazing and our drives combined with our imagination have helped us to achieve great things.

However, despite these truly amazing qualities, humans are massively impacted by our nervous systems. We are wired to notice threat and instinctually focus on it. What’s more, once dysregulated (for example when we feel anxious, angry or sad) we send these signals out into the world through our faces, voices and actions.

As a species we are sensitive to others feelings and sometimes we can quickly feel overwhelmed after contact with others who feel afraid, frustrated or sad. Furthermore, our propensity to imagine means we can easily draw up thoughts and images which represent the worst case scenario and our bodies are designed to generate distress to these thoughts irrespective of whether our fears ever become realised. In this way our biggest strength as humans can quickly become our biggest weakness; for example, the imagination which ultimately propelled us to design technology and be so amazing can start to torment us with our worst fears. This is more prominent now as we are surrounded by messages or danger and feelings of dysregulation.

It’s not really possible to chat with the nervous system and ask it to settle down. It’s automatic and largely instinctual to us. I am sure many of us have experienced feelings of anxiety keeping us awake, sadness and grief preoccupying our thoughts and feelings of anger clouding our judgement. If we could have a dialect with the nervous system and help it to differentiate between helpful fear vs unhelpful fear life would be much easier. Understanding this propensity can sometimes encourage us to be kinder towards ourselves and less critical of our experiences. From this place of compassion (which, by the way, has a powerful soothing influence on our nervous system) we can ask the next question… how can I communicate with my nervous system and settle this feeling, especially if the feeling is unhelpful or holding us back? Usually signals of danger are interspersed with messages of safety and we maybe need to encourage and support our awareness to notice this. For example, although the news may be predominated by danger, if we look at the room we are in we might become aware that it is thankfully danger free… no snakes hiding under our settee, no tigers behind the curtains etc. Asking our minds to shift to our present surroundings and noticing what we can see, hear smell and touch can therefore help us feel more immediately safe.

There is another thing we sometimes forget about our nervous system, there are messages coming up from our body as well as messages coming down from the brain. This means we can work with our bodies to try and settle anxiety. The most effective way of doing this is to work with the breath. Fast shallow breathing intensifies an anxiety response, slower deeper breathing eases feelings of anxiety. Try our breathing technique further down the blog to help with this. Additionally, exercise can help encourage more positive biological responses and help the body feel more relaxed. I particularly love Yoga because this combines full body open postures (great for confidence and wellbeing) with breathing exercises, a double boost to our nervous systems.

I hope this has helped and please do contact us to book a personalised session, at info@airevalleypsych.co.uk.