The dictionary describes safety as the condition of being protected from either danger or injury. Being safe can refer to either physical or psychological safety and is a way to preserve one’s own well-being as well as that of the community and the world at large.
The concept of safety is often addressed in the various schools of psychology — whether they be Freudian, Jungian, Behavioristic, Humanistic, or Transpersonal. The late Abraham Maslow, the “Father of Humanistic Psychology,” has made the most direct reference to the concept of safety, and I greatly admire his work. Humanistic psychology encompasses a holistic worldview and focuses on the idea that humans are basically good.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he presents the image of a pyramid, which, like physical pyramids, is built from the bottom up. It includes five levels, and not surprisingly, the bottom level represents safety or security. Security lies in that position because, like a building being built, there must be a proper foundation for the human psyche to flourish — that is, security.
Until recently, especially since the emergence of the much-discussed attachment theory, my sense was that the idea of security and safety had been missing from the limelight. Perhaps for many of us, security is taken for granted. The focus had been on the more esoteric levels of the pyramid, such as self-esteem and self-actualization. In many ways, many of us don’t nurture our sense of security, which can lead to major health ramifications, both mentally and physically.
Recently, I was blessed with my fourth grandchild, which has been a gentle reminder of the importance for safety and security. It’s especially evident when I observe this little one being cuddled and loved by his parents. This sense of belonging begins early in life and transcends the life span. However, many of us tend to take security for granted, in that we don’t speak about it very much.
In addition to contemplating security in newborns, I’ve been exposed to security at the other end of the spectrum. As a baby boomer, I’m witnessing many elders in my life getting up in years, and I’m noting their preference to grow old in their own homes — a place where they feel a deep sense of connection and security. Also, as a resident of California, I’ve been quite mindful of security, especially in light of the recent fires and mudslides in my area and the loss of many homes. I realize the importance of not taking security for granted.
The idea of security is not a simple one, and it’s more likely that we find ourselves in a survival mode when we’ve been exposed to early-childhood trauma. Those who have undergone unresolved issues with security during their youth might find themselves using defense mechanisms, such as fight or flight or immobilization in response to stressful situations, such as grieving the loss of a loved one.
In the 1990s, Stephen Porges coined the term “polyvagal theory,” which states that people have physical reactions (cardiac, digestive, and so on) that are associated with their facial expressions. In other words, he says that the autonomic nervous system is linked to certain behaviors, and that we all respond to certain situations as a way to protect ourselves. For example, when we sense danger, we tend to protect ourselves by either shutting down (depression) or incorporating the fight-or-flight response. The polyvagal theory is also pertinent when people are dealing with issues of grief, as it’s been shown that those who do not feel safe often have difficulty dealing with this emotion.
The theory itself highlights the idea that the autonomic nervous system is influenced by the central nervous system, which in turn is influenced and affected by both the environment and the body’s organs. The theory emphasizes the fact that because the automatic nervous system detects and monitors safety, it is affected when we’ve been traumatized.
In Claire Nana’s review of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (2018), she says that the book offers a window into the inner life of those who’ve been traumatized, as they try to figure out a way to maintain safety while also finding ways to bring joy into their lives.
Here are some ways to nurture and learn about safety in our clients and loved ones:
- Discuss safety issues encountered during childhood.
- Propose that individuals communicate in an open, transparent fashion.
- Encourage daily journaling.
- Explore what people need in order to feel safe.
- Talk about what makes them feel unsafe.
- Formulate a concrete plan for ensuring safety.
- Discuss social cues or triggers that suggest a lack of safety.
- Delve into emergency measures others can use when feeling unsafe.
Dana, D. (2018). “Book Review: The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.” PsychCentral. Oct. 13.
Levine, P. (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North American Books.
Porges, S. and D. Dana. Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory. Wagner, D. (2011), pp. 50–69.
Wagner, D. (2016). “Polyvagal Theory in Practice.” Counseling Today. June 27.