Somatic Safety - The Key To EverythingSep 18, 2023
The sense of safety is at the heart of intimacy and all forms of positive relating.
So in this post we’re going to be exploring what somatic safety is, and exactly why it’s so important for us humans.
What is somatic safety?
The term ‘somatic’ refers to the body, and so we can say that somatic safety is the experience that here, now, in my body, I’m safe.
It’s the felt sense of safety, experienced directly in the body.
In this state we feel grounded, at ease with our physical sensations, at home in our body, and connected with the world around us.
And this allows us to be more in touch with our feelings, emotions, and bodily needs, bringing a greater sense of embodied presence, confidence, and overall well-being.
But it’s also part of a complex picture that stretches far back into our evolutionary past, informing our present-day reality in unexpected ways.
So let’s take our description a little deeper…
An evolutionary perspective
From a biological perspective, somatic safety can be described as what we feel when our nervous system is not experiencing any threats in our immediate environment.
In this way, we can think of the sense of safety as our resting state, our default setting, that which we automatically return to whenever there are no signs of danger to respond to in our environment.
This description brings in the fact that one of the primary functions of our nervous system is to constantly assess our environment for signs of danger; and whenever it picks up on one, it prepares the body to respond accordingly – either to overcome the threat or avoid it: fight, flight or collapse.
But when there are no perceived dangers around, at such times it feels safe to relax – to ‘rest and digest’.
It also feels safe to play, to be creative, to enjoy connection with others.
Importantly, this process of assessment and response happens beneath the level of our conscious awareness, deep in the body.
Our body itself decides whether it is safe or not, and adjusts itself according to what it perceives.
This function is part of what is known as the instinctual self, or the animal self, which guides behaviour and responses without the influence of higher-order cognitive processes or learned behaviours.
This is why we say that somatic safety is created in and by the body – it’s fundamentally a bodily experience, created primarily by the autonomic (automatic, involuntary) nervous system itself, independent of conscious input.
Only later is the sense of safety passed up into increasingly conscious states – emotions and mental states.
So we call the sense of somatic safety a ‘bottom-up’ phenomenon.
Features of somatic safety
In the state of somatic safety, a whole range of features are present:
On a physiological level, our breathing is deep, our heart-rate slows (but not too much), our energy is vibrantly centred in the core of our bodies (rather than the limbs), and our gaze is open and diffuse…
Mentally and emotionally, our thought processes are calm and clear, and we naturally inhabit more of the full range of our relational capacities – curiosity, awareness, attunement, intimacy, compassion, creative expression, and the other aspects of social engagement that make us human…
Moreover, we are able to draw from a deeper well of personal and interpersonal resources…
We are more able to take appropriate risks…
We can set clear boundaries when we need to…
And we can easily enter into co-creativity – the essence of intimacy.
So you can see why the sense of safety is so important for us humans.
The qualities and characteristics that it brings online foster a playful, growth-minded, connection-focused experience of life.
Obviously, this felt-sense of safety and the expansive range of potential that comes with it, is where we want to spend most of our time.
It’s where we feel most ourselves, most empowered, and most connected.
But as you’ve no doubt experienced for yourself, all sorts of things can happen to shift us out of the sense of safety.
And this shift can happen at any moment.
As highly evolved mammals, we have a finely-tuned survival system that is constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.
When it perceives one, it moves us instantly out of the sense of safety and switches on our survival instincts – fight, flight, or collapse.
Any perceived threat, real or imagined, can bring us out of the experience of safety and into our survival responses.
And once these take over, we are suddenly experiencing a very different world.
The survival instincts belong to our deep evolutionary past, and are designed for survival.
They developed in a world that basically wants to kill or eat us.
And they have allowed us to survive over millions of years in that world.
They are definitely not the enemy – but they do have their drawbacks.
They are essentially primitive, and are still living in a primitive world of survival, despite the fact that we are now living in a much more sophisticated environment.
Because of this, their focus is narrow, and the solutions they offer are short-term and often drastic.
When we are switched into the instinctual self, our higher cognitive capacities go offline and our full potentials are shut down, as most of our resources are diverted towards dealing with the perceived threat in our environment and staying alive.
This narrowed focus makes us less able to feel empathy or compassion for those around us, less able to see any kind of bigger picture, and less able to make creative choices that are in line with our values and larger purpose in life.
More-often-than-not, this has negative consequences in our highly complex and relational world.
Of course, there are occasions when there is a serious physical danger out there triggering our instincts – we’re not for a moment diminishing the reality of that.
In those situations, we want our survival system to react fast and get us to safety.
But often, our instinctual responses are inappropriate to the situation we find ourselves in – there is no real survival threat to us in our environment:
We can misjudge external events to be dangerous or life-threatening when in fact they are not, or we can take something that someone says to be a survival threat.
Our nervous system can even respond to a thought about an anticipated danger as an immediate threat, or be triggered by a fearful memory brought to mind.
And if we have experienced trauma in our lives, our body may hold the memory of the traumatic event, and this body-memory alone can sometimes activate a survival response – in the absence of any kind of additional internal or external trigger whatsoever.
The list of potential triggers is long, because we are naturally very tuned-in to danger.
This has been very much to our evolutionary advantage, giving us the best chance of recognising and averting danger as soon as it appears.
But it is very compromising in our modern world.
The more we are triggered the less we have of ourselves available, and the more of our lives we spend acting out our more primitive responses.
This is no way to thrive in a highly relational world.
Keeping our relational self online
So, given all of the above, the challenge is for us to keep our whole self online as much as possible and as fully as possible, within an environment that is potentially triggering us constantly in one way or another.
The more we can do that, the more we can move beyond a life of reactivity and survival strategies and into one of thriving, creativity, and genuine intimacy with others.
In this, learning to create and maintain a robust sense of somatic safety is key.
And that is exactly what our 'core teachings' series is designed to help you to do.
It contains various maps and models that bring a lot more depth and nuance to our understanding the nervous system and how to navigate it.
Its goal is to help you learn how to effectively restore your sense of somatic safety when you have become dysregulated, and to create a more robust and stable sense of safety longer-term.
The next post in the series is on trauma and its many symptoms, since, whether you personally identify as a trauma survivor or not, trauma is one of the major factors in our cultural disconnection from the body, and therefore a major factor undermining our sense of somatic safety. You can check that out here →
You can also check out our free video course ‘The Building Blocks of Embodied Intimacy’. The foundational somatic practices we share in it complement the more theoretical contents of this teaching series, and can help you deepen your sense of somatic safety. Sign up for that here →
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