The Role that Safety Plays When Healing from Trauma - Humantold

The Role that Safety Plays When Healing from Trauma

Danielle Louis, MHC-LP February 3, 2022

Our sense of safety stems from a physiological response colloquially known as “feel-good hormones,” and they’re essential for effective and safe trauma recovery.

Have you ever received a hug at the exact moment you needed it? Maybe that moment was a time when you were on the brink of tears overflowing from sadness, or when you felt the world threatening to crush you. Maybe you remember the hug from your parents after a car accident when you were a teenager. The first hug after arriving home from deployment. Or maybe that hug simply came at the exact moment you’d reached your emotional breaking point. 

Now … if you pause and close your eyes, can you remember what the hug felt like? Was it warm? Did you breathe in a long, involuntary breath of relief? Did you simultaneously feel your heart rate lower and your muscles relax? Did everything feel better … even if only for mere seconds? For those of us lucky enough to relate to this feeling of being enveloped within a warm, supportive, and loving hug from your “safe person,” you may have just remembered what that magical wave of safety feels like – and maybe you even felt it in your body as you read these words. That magical sense of safety stems from a physiological response colloquially known as “feel-good hormones” (formally known as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine), and they’re essential for effective and safe trauma recovery. Safety speaks powerfully to trauma when words alone can’t get through the fear of trauma’s darkness. 

“Safety and terror are incompatible.” –Dr. Bessel van der Kolk 

This quote from one of the top trauma researchers and clinicians in the world exemplifies the necessity of feeling safe during the journey to healing from trauma. Those who have lived through traumatic experiences (referred to as survivors throughout the remainder of this article) have been thrown into a challenging world of constant uncertainty, danger, and darkness. But a miraculous contrast exists: safety. Where there is safety, trauma responses such as anxiety, fear, and flashbacks can be drastically reduced.

As we process the enormity and importance of safety in trauma healing, the analogy of darkness and light will be utilized throughout. Let’s think of safety as the light fighting off the darkness of trauma! Before we dive into a discussion on the power of safety, let’s briefly look at the impacts of trauma defined by the American Psychological Association: PTSD is “an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident, or a natural disaster.” 

People with PTSD may:

  • Relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares. 
  • Avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma.
  • Have anxious feelings they didn’t have previously, which are so intense their lives are disrupted

It is important to note that trauma has become a broad term and sometimes goes beyond what the above diagnosis may imply. As many may recognize, trauma is most often correlated with sexual violence, military service, or natural disasters – what we think of as “Big T” traumas. However, it also exists in other realms of life as well, such as childhood instability, chronic/complex trauma, and the lesser-discussed category of intergenerational trauma. 

Overall, each of these trauma responses listed (and many that are not) stem from hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system and limbic system during a traumatic experience. The limbic system, comprising the amygdala and hippocampus, is often known as the “emotional part of your brain.” When trauma occurs, it directly affects the limbic system — your emotions and sense of safety. Going back to the light/dark analogy, we need to send the light in (that is, create safety) by “rewiring” the limbic system to remind it what safety feels like. Simply put, we are going to do everything that contradicts what trauma is telling you. 

The promising news: research shows that some of the most effective aspects of healing include having basic safety needs met and a safe human connection established as soon after a traumatic incident as possible. So what does this mean? Basic needs are the everyday aspects of life that we need to feel safe, fulfilled, connected, provided for, and loved. These needs range from food, water, and shelter to more in-depth needs such as resources, support, and familiarity (van der Kolk 2014; VeryWell, 2021). However, these basic needs are just the start of how the lightness of safety can begin to defeat the darkness of trauma. So, how do you create safety in your life if you are a survivor or co-survivor of trauma in need of basic needs and beyond?

Let’s dive into the light: 

1. Find your safe person

This person does not have to be a family member but can be anyone you trust, respect, and feel safe participating in a vulnerable conversation. This person may be someone who has already been in your life for a while and has demonstrated trust. Safety can also come from sources such as Alcoholics Anonymous, veteran support groups, or a trusted mentor. There are no set rules to establish your safe person, as long as you can deeply connect with and lean into their love and support. Additional things to look for: 

  • Do they listen without judgment? 
  • Do they validate your emotions and concerns? 
  • Do they respect you? 
  • Are they patient? 
  • Are they understanding? 
  • Can you reach them easily and reliably?

Unfortunately, not every survivor of trauma has a safe person in their lives – indeed, sometimes whoever they once thought was their safe person was the perpetrator of violence. In these cases, or if you simply need to feel extra love in a moment of hyperarousal (e.g. after or during completing assigned trauma-processing homework from your therapist outside of sessions, having a flashback or nightmare, feeling sad, etc.), Tip #4 below suggests grounding techniques to practice. 

2. Work on rewiring the limbic system

Do you feel unsafe in your body? Try yoga! Feel afraid of trusting others around you? Try support groups! Feel fearful? Try tae-kwon-do! Feel silenced? Join a local theater group! I know what you’re thinking … is she just listing off random activities here? In fact, no. Each of these activities has scientific research backing them as successful “rewiring activities” to create structure and safety for trauma survivors. 

Tip: Classes, especially yoga and self-defense, often offer trauma-informed instruction. For survivors of trauma, this can ensure the safety stays shining bright, and the darkness of trauma doesn’t infringe upon the safety of healing by way of hyperarousal and retraumatization. That means that all instructors have a baseline knowledge of how the body reacts to stimuli and hyperarousal within trauma survivors. They will also validate your experience and always ask permission. 

3. Create safety through physical touch

According to research, the sensation of being consensually touched, rocked (yes, like a baby – remember, we’re rewiring the limbic system), and hugged can lead to feelings of safety, calmness, and a reduction of hyperarousal (van der Kolk, 2014). It is important, however, to note the importance of always asking for permission to provide physical touch if you are a safe person. As healing as physical touch can be, it can also cause an adverse effect if a trauma survivor is not anticipating it. 

4. Create your own sense of safety within your body

Practice creating your own sense of safety, being grounded in the present moment, and emotion regulation by practicing the following exercises (Levine, 2017): 

  1. Hug yourself.

    • Take your right arm and wrap it around your body until it fits snuggly under your left armpit. 
    • Take your left arm and wrap it around your right shoulder. 
    • Now, observe what you feel inside your body.

  2. Feel your energy flow.

    • Place one hand on your forehead. 
    • Place the opposite on your chest/heart. 
    • You can choose to close your eyes or let them remain open. 
    • Take several deep breaths. 
    • What can you sense within your body? What can you feel between your head and your heart? 
    • Stay in this position until you feel a sense of calm shift throughout your body. 
    • Finally, move your hand from your forehead and place it on your stomach. 
    • What can you sense within your body after this new hand placement? 

5.  Create Your Own Safe Space

Sometimes we need a safe zone that is ours and only ours. We can go there to think, cry, meditate, or just sit. Try putting the space together with everything that makes you comfortable. Work on implementing items that can pair with all five senses! For example candles, incense, diffusers, plush pillows, stress balls, soft music, warm colors, mints, snacks. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – it could even be your bathroom or closet, as long as it’s a place in which you sense relief when you enter it alone. Go here when things become overwhelming and you need an extra sense of safety. 

You may not be able to establish all of the above suggestions at one time, but continue to allow yourself grace and space — healing is never linear, and it’s not on anyone’s timeline except for your own. The only “right” way to heal is by doing what feels meaningful and appropriate for where you are on the journey. Throughout this article, we’ve aimed to offer guidance regarding the importance of safety in trauma recovery and recommendations of how to better seek it if you need more in your life. However, in no way is this article meant to simplify the effort it takes to heal as a survivor of trauma, nor the complexities that come along with the lifelong journey of becoming a new – and more powerful – version of yourself.

We hope this article has offered some encouragement by observing ways to enhance the healing process that are simple and yet immensely effective. Safety – despite being something this author wishes she could guarantee to all – is not always available. These words have hopefully empowered you to realize that you can find safety within your own body. 

Additionally, mental health resources, therapists, and specialized healing groups exist to ensure that even though there may not be someone to provide safety in this particular moment, help is only a message or phone call away. No one deserves to feel alone in the healing process. All it takes is reaching out, and helpful professionals will happily be the light ready to shine through the darkness.

If you would like to utilize Humantold services, contact us today

Additional information: 

Read: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Watch: Treating Trauma: 2 Ways to Help Clients Feel Safe, with Peter Levine

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