Safety is a Felt Sense
Safety is a felt sense. The body’s felt sense is in the instinctive response of the body. Does your body feel safe which is then reflected in relaxed body posture and movement. Or does your feel unsafe which can reflect itself in clenched fists, the jaw tightening or bracing the shoulders. The felt sense of safety is different from the actual situation you are in. You may be in a situation or location that your mind believes is safe but the body still feels unsafe. Trauma can be a significant factor in this. Trauma history can lead a feeling that certain locations or times are unsafe because in the past they have been unsafe. For example, someone with a trauma history where bad things happen at night might have a felt sense of unsafety at night and have a hard time going to sleep, even if the trauma occurred a long time ago. The body can also respond to that loss of safety with panic symptoms and a triggering of the fight or flight response. For example, there are individuals who wake up in the middle of the night and see their partner doing something as simple as closing a window and the body will instinctively respond with panic and fear. Their mind knows that their partner is not going to hurt them but the felt sense of unsafety will trigger a trauma response in our nervous system. Trauma can deeply affect our felt sense of safety.
That loss sense of safety can also affect people in relationships. Someone with anxious attachment style can be triggered when their partner simply leaves the house, making the body unsafe, uncomfortable and anxious. The body feels these things deeply and can lead to strong feelings of abandonment and insecurity. The instinctive fear is that the relationship is unsafe and can be lost. This fear and anxiety can overcome the mind and logical thought because it is a powerful feeling. This fear has been described as a pit in the stomach or like a mountain falling on the person. The partner may not have any negative intention but it will be felt deeply. The partner may simply be going to work or going to visit his or her family, but the act of leaving creates the felt sense of danger that they are being abandoned by their partner or that they will lose the relationship.
Those with an avoidant attachment style, when they feel their felt sense of safety is under attack, will feel the need to run away in the core of their physical being. Any form of conflict will result in a disruption of the sense of safety and they will do anything to escape the situation. Retreating is the only way to allow the body to feel safe. The body will feel very uncomfortable and anxious until they are removed from the conflict. Understanding this felt sense is an important first step in addressing it. Connecting the body’s response to the felt sense of unsafety is something that therapy can assist with.
For all attachment styles, when someone is in a relationship, the felt sense of safety underlies a lot of arguments. For those of us in relationships, we are familiar with those arguments that are intense and deeply held onto, even if the external cause of the argument may seem trivial or small. These arguments are often caused because the partners feel unsafe at some level. They may feel unsafe about themselves or about the relationship itself. That fear triggers the strong emotions that drive many of these arguments.
For example, someone was scheduled for a painful medical procedure that deeply affected their sense of safety. Their partner was supposed to help them with that painful medical procedure but at the last minute injured himself and was not able to help their partner. While the mind can understand that this injury is an explanation for not being present, the body instinctively feels betrayed and hurt and rejected the partner. It is important to process this felt sense of loss of safety. That requires acknowledging the body’s loss of safety but also time to process that feeling even after acknowledging it. Understanding this response and being able to communicate it to your partner is important in helping everyone move forward in the relationship instead of causing disruption and separation.
How do we address the body’s felt sense of safety? Instead of judging yourself or reacting negatively, one can regain the sense of safety by regulating your body and your emotions. That can be done by orienting yourself to your current situation and focusing your mind on the things you can sense around you. Social engagement can help with regulating emotions by talking to others in a non-stressful manner. In a relationship, validating your body’s felt sense can help release the strong negative emotions. Oftentimes, holding in the body’s feelings only causes those feelings to linger and turn into resentment. Validating the body’s felt sense gives a voice to the body’s felt sense and can help you move forward.