The Importance of Safety — But is There Any Such Thing?
A sense of safety is a crucial human need, and working with trauma and anxiety is all about finding this sense of a secure base in the world. However, given our position in the universe, whizzing around on a rock in the middle of infinite space, with pretty much the only certainty in our life being the fact that we will die, is it not a little crazy to imagine that we are safe?
Safety, or security, is of paramount importance in therapy. We talk about it all the time, in terms of the safety of the therapeutic relationship, and as a common thread running through all the problems that are brought to therapy. However difficult a situation may be, if we feel basically safe or secure, then we are likely to feel we can cope with it, and not seek professional help. On the other hand, people who feel their situations are actually fine may come because they feel constantly anxious and unsafe.
There seems to be an emphasis at the moment on trauma in our understanding of human distress, discovering just to what extent it influences our lives on physical, emotional and mental levels. There is undoubtedly a deeper understanding of how trauma works, and societal changes are making it possible to realise, remember, label and articulate the tragically common experience of sexual abuse, for example. The huge prevalence of all kinds of states of distress that fall under the categories of anxiety and depression turns out in so many cases to be due to the correspondingly huge prevalence of traumatic events which people have been finding ways of surviving and living with for years.
So in a society in which panic attacks are almost normal and ‘wellbeing’ has become an elite commodity or lifestyle choice, a basic sense of safety and security has become the holy grail. Our collective nervous system is constantly strained, overstimulated, tensing against and running from danger, even while we hold ourselves still in front of our screens. It needs soothing.
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Attachment theory now seems part of mainstream understanding. Our mental, emotional and physical health seems clearly influenced by how secure our initial connection with our closest caregiver was. So many people did not feel a deep sense of safety, trust and responsiveness from their early caregivers, the kind upon which our nervous system builds itself, our template of what the world is like and our chances of survival in it. Of course, young children sense that they cannot survive alone. This lack comes up again and again in therapy, at the root of childhoods that on the surface of it were fine, with no abuse and no deprivation, yet lacking that deep, warm connection that can best be described as feeling safe — safe in that loving connection whatever you do, and not worried about losing it if you do something ‘wrong’.
I wonder however, as I help people to find this sense of safety in their own bodies, through their breathing and being with their own internal states in a loving and accepting way, and as I do my best to be a safe and unconditionally accepting connection myself as they talk about their experiences, whether we are not missing some crucial dimension of human experience. We aren’t actually safe.
Given our position in the universe, whizzing around on a rock in the middle of infinite space, a relatively tiny distance from its fiery core, entirely out of control of this scenario, with pretty much the only certainty in our life being the fact that we will die, is it not a little crazy to imagine that we are safe? In doing this, are we not repressing something quite normal, healthy and potentially creative?
I do think the emphasis on safety is absolutely necessary for people who are suffering from anxiety and trauma. It is crucial to re-educate our bodies and reassure them that what happened once, or what might happen in the future, is not happening this minute. Experiences of emotional safety, in the sense of loving acceptance, are very real and very valuable and we need them. Natural emotional reactions need to come through and be received. It’s also a good idea to learn how to stop perpetuating a sense of unease or danger with mental patterns that don’t serve any purpose. And obviously we need somewhere to live, somewhere we know we can go home to every night, where we won’t be threatened, and we need food on the table, and money. This is lacking for far too many people, and this kind of lack of safety needs addressing and tackling as a matter of urgency.
After this, however, if there’s some residual unease, it’s not necessarily a problem to be medicated. It may well be a sense of our actual position in the universe, which can in no way at all be defined as safe. This can be the starting point for enquiry, creative activity and finding/creating a meaning in life beyond basic survival. Even if we attain a sense of complete material and emotional safety, we could drop dead the next minute. And there’s nothing even the most experienced therapist can do about that!
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by
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