When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, our body responds as though it is under attack. This evolutionary ‘safety strategy’ prepares us to fight or flee in times of danger. Sometimes, however, the same ‘safety strategy’ is deployed by our brain and/or body even though we are physically safe – we may hear a noise, smell a distinct odour or be in a position that reminds us of dangerous times. Sometimes a memory may be explicit ( that smell is how the man who attacked me smelt ), but in many instances we don’t make an immediate link between a thought and our body’s response. What happens instead is our body prepares itself to fight or flee without us necessarily knowing why – so we experience the fight or flight bodily responses (hot, shaky, breathless, anxious or panicked) or the freeze bodily response (numb, frozen to the spot) seemingly for no reason at all.
When we are triggered in times of physical safety, we need to remind ourselves that we are safe. We need to ‘turn off’ the evolutionary strategies that are preparing us to fight or flee. There are a number of techniques that can help to calm our nervous system:
Using our breath is probably the fastest and easiest way to influence our ‘fear brain’. It can be utilised anywhere and is invisible to others. Whether you’re sitting on a crowded bus or in a meeting with your boss, you can use your breath without anyone knowing that you have been triggered. The goal is to slow your breathing down, and to have an awareness of your breath within your chest and belly. Some people like to count the in and out breathe, others like to visualise a balloon expanding and contracting; for some using an App on their phone can help as both a reminder and guide. Use the technique that will work for you. Continue breathing in this way until you feel your body returning to a safe state, some people may achieve this in a minute whereas others may take 5 minutes. This is not a competition, you do what works for you.
Focus on your Senses
Focussing on the senses reminds you that you are safe in the present moment. When your mind and body are reminded that you are safe, you gain control of your ‘fear brain’.
Using a sense of Touch brings your body back to the present day – what part of your body is touching the earth? If you are standing, push your feet hard into the ground. Hold awareness of doing this. If you are sitting, perhaps in your car, really feel your bottom, upper thighs and back make contact with the seat. Then activate your next sense – what can you see, hear or smell? If you are eating, focus on the sensation of taste. Focus on these sensations, bringing your awareness to the present moment.
A visualisation exercise can transport you to a calm and peaceful place, using your senses. Nature can be one of the greatest healers and for many of my clients their safe places exist in the natural environment. This may be a place that you have visited, that you walk to, where you live or of your imagination. An example of a safe place visualisation, in my garden:
“I can feel the softness of the cushion on my back and legs. I am really comfortable and feel almost cocooned by the chair. I feel the warmth of the sun on my arms and on my face. I breathe deeply. It is a still day. I hear the faint rumble of a car on the road outside. I hear birdsong. The birdsong is beautiful. I see daffodils and purple flowers; I see lots of varieties of green. I see a robin pecking at seed on the bird table. The air is clean and fresh. I take more deep breaths. I feel the calming, peaceful energy of the world around me.”
Safe place statement
When we’re frightened, our cognitive thinking can be impaired. We often believe what is happening in our body. If we are trigged from a past even, we need to remind ourselves that it is a past event, it is not happening now. A statement, repeated when we are triggered, can help return us to a balanced state. Practicing these statements in times of safety is highly beneficial.
Some clients are helped by writing these statements on cards to place in their wallet and refer to frequently; others place statements in frames and hang them on walls / place them on bedside tables; other clients practice statements as part of a regular routine (perhaps every time they wash their hands or make a cup of tea). An example of a statement may be as follows: