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The science of safety: How feeling safe can improve our health and wellbeing.

I’m sure we can all relate to feeling ‘butterflies in your stomach’ ‘skin crawling’ or ‘heart racing’ when we feel strong emotions like excitement, fear, or anxiety. All of these feelings are not a coincidence, they are all good examples of how our autonomic nervous system effects our physical health.

So, what is our autonomic nervous system (ANS) and why does it matter?

Our ANS’s job is to make sure we stay alive and controls all of our autonomic functions, things like our breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and libido. Because your ANS’s #1 goal it to keep you alive, it regulates your bodily functions based on whether or not it perceives you as being safe or in danger, a term that has been coined ‘neuroception’. Our ANS fluctuates between 3 different states of arousal depending on a neuroception of safety or danger.

Our Social engagement state is active when our neuroception of safety is highest. In this state our body and nervous system are open to input, progression and are functioning optimally.

As our bodies perceive danger we move up in arousal into flight/fight. In this state our body is ready to fight or run, think imminent danger from a predator. Physiologically we see an increase in HR, blood pressure & breathing rate; slowed digestion, lowered immunity as well as feelings of irritability, frustration and anger.

If this perception of danger continues our body goes into life preservation mode or our freeze response, think about an animal playing dead. In this state our body prioritises preservation of life and so slows down all processes. This can look like slowed metabolism, low muscle control and tone, lowered libido, shallow breathing or feelings of numbness, dissociation, or hopelessness.

It’s important we have the ability to move freely between these states as and when needed. Problems begin to arise when our ANS gets stuck in a chronic neuroception of danger which can result in chronic conditions such as chronic pain, IBS, Fibromyalgia, hypertension, lowered immunity, or psychological difficulties such as anxiety, depression, or anti-social behaviour. Increasing our ANS’s ability to return to our social engagement system can help promote long term health and wellbeing.

How does our ANS decide if we are safe or in danger?

Our ANS takes cues from our internal and external environment to perceive safety or danger. Some sources of neuroception are movement, touch, sound, breathing, smells and the people we are with.

Some tips for increasing neuroception of safety:

  •  Slow deep breathing. Try make your exhale longer than your inhale.
  • Get in some gentle movement. Go for a walk or try some gentle stretches.
  • Spend time with friends and family who make you feel happy and safe.
  • Listen to music you love. Think of upbeat music if you feel ‘shut down’, or something more
  • calming if you think you might be in ‘fight/ flight’.
  • Deep pressure is a great way to calm our system. Think of weighted blankets or even just a hug.
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