Sometimes we feel like we’re in danger even when we’re actually safe. In this post you’re going to learn four skills to turn off this fear response, aka the fight/flight/freeze response, and restore a sense of calm in your body and mind.
I’m going to teach you to recognize the lie of perceived danger that can trigger the body’s fear response when you are actually safe. You’re going to learn how to soothe your nervous system, and I’m going to show you some really practical activities that you can do to feel safe when you are safe, even when your mind lies and tells you you’re not.
In this section the exercises are really important, so don’t skip them.
Guys, this section is experiential — you have to experience it, not just think about it. So make sure to not skip over the exercises.
Experiment From “The Worry Solution” pg 9-10
Let me invite you to do a simple experiment to see how your imagination can influence the way you feel.
Make sure you are in a safe, comfortable place where you can close your eyes for a few minutes. Focus on your body as if your attention were a radar or sonar beam slowly scanning up and down, and notice if you feel any stress, tension, or discomfort anywhere in your body.
On a scale of 0-10, where 0 is no tension and 10 is all the tension you can stand, where would you rate the tension level in your body right now?
Now imagine that you are camping in the woods. In the middle of the night you need to go to the bathroom, so you partially dress and shuffle off so you won’t disturb anybody else. It’s completely dark with no moon and it takes you a while to find a level place, but you finally are able to do what you need to do.
The need attended to, you notice how dark it is, and you start to carefully pick your way back to camp, reaching out with your arms extended so you don’t bump into anything. You trip over tree roots and rocks and pick up a few scratches from unseen branches. After a while, you feel that you’ve been walking too long and should have found your campsite already. It’s cold and dark and you’re kind of uncomfortable.
You start walking in another direction, and then after a while another, and you realize that you are lost. You quietly call out several times, but nobody answers. Finally you yell loudly, but still get no response. The night is even darker and colder, and you feel very alone. As you wonder what to do next, the background noises of the forest suddenly go strangely quiet.
You hear something moving in the brush nearby. It sounds like something big, and it is heading toward you.
Now, stop for a minute and rescan your body. Where would you rank your tension level now on that 0-to-10 scale?
Imagine that from the direction of the breaking twigs, you hear your good friend call out your name. It’s not a bear. You are safe. Notice if your tension goes away immediately or if there is some aftereffect that lingers for a little while.
I apologize for scaring you, but the point is that if you did get tense or scared, it’s because you have a good imagination. And you can see how intimately it is connected to your body.
Perceived Danger Versus Actual Danger
When we believe we are in danger but are actually physically safe, our body and mind create the same physical anxiety reaction as if we were in actual physical danger. Our brain signals to our body to pump out adrenaline and trigger that FFF response. We do it so much that we don’t even notice we’re doing it.
Exercise: Take 5 minutes now, pull out a piece of paper, and answer this question: Are you 100% safe right now?
When I was asked this in a workshop, initially I was like, “Yeah, I’m safe.” But then as I took time, I thought, “Well, any of these people could attack me. There could be an earthquake, a fire, a mass shooting — heck, I might have cancer or a parasite that could kill me shortly. The other people in the workshop came up with similar responses.
The presenter simply asked, “Did I ask if you were safe in the future or safe in the now?”
I realized that all of those dangers I thought of are not happening right now. My sense of fear created them in my mind.
They were not actual threats, they were perceived threats — dangers that our minds can imagine but which our bodies cannot escape. This creates a stuck feeling of anxiety. Anxiety disorders and PTSD are essentially when our minds convince our bodies that we are in danger when we are actually safe.
We see danger in our jobs, our commutes, and when we read the news. Unlike animals, our powerful brains can see danger in the future, which our body reacts to in the present.
We rush about our days flustered and stressed, thinking that it’s normal to be constantly anxious. We may notice the stress but be unaware of the cause. Even sedentary jobs leave us exhausted because our bodies are running a stress marathon during the day with elevated heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure.
When we are chronically stressed, it actually does not help us stay safe, and it decreases productivity. Chronic stress makes us sick, inhibits thinking, and distorts our perceptions of the world. Calm, intentional action is more likely to keep us safe and healthy.
Do you do this? Do you bring to mind scary things that could happen or might happen, but there’s no action you can take? Sometimes I do, but after this workshop I was able to give it a name. This is perceived danger.
How has your stress response, which is supposed to help you perform, gotten in the way of you being productive?
We can heal from anxiety and fear when we create perceived safety — noticing that we are actually safe in the here and now.
A Parasympathetically Dominant Nervous System
Remember, our nervous system has two states: FFF(sympathetic response) and the rest and digest (parasympathetic response). We strengthen the part that we use the most. To create safety and calm, we need to foster a parasympathetically dominant nervous system, or a calm nervous system. We do this on a physical level in two ways:
- Creating safety in our mind: Changing how we perceive situations.
- Creating safety in our body: Changing our body’s physical response to situations through a bottom-up approach.
We’ve already talked about creating safety in the body through self-regulation, and now you’ll learn how to change how you think about situations. When you change the way you think, you change your body’s reaction. So the first thing that you learned was to stop and evaluate whether the stress/anxiety you are feeling is from a perceived danger or an actual threat. Now let’s move on to the next exercise.
Take 3 minutes and write down the things that cause you stress.
Now look at those items again. We generally don’t realize it, but the reason that outside circumstances are linked with a stress response is because of our interpretation that they are a threat to our physical safety.
How are you seeing the things on your list as a threat?
So for example, when I have a job evaluation, what is the interpretation in the middle that makes my deep brain set off the FFF response? It may be the fear that I could lose my job and then I’d run out of money and starve to death. This is an example of thinking (even subconscious thinking) that we are in danger when the reality is that we are quite safe. We often don’t notice that we are thinking that way.
If we want to regulate our emotions, we need to go back to the steps for emotional processing. These are:
- Notice your “this is a danger” response.
- Explore your thoughts: “What am I seeing as dangerous?”
- Choose how to act (one or more of the following):
- Change the perception (my boss isn’t going to fire me. I’m overreacting. I’m safe).
- Change the bodily reaction (practice calming down the nervous system).
- Take action to solve the problem (maybe I wasn’t turning in reports on time, so now I will make sure to do that).
Remember Name it to Tame it? When we don’t acknowledge that we are having a danger response, we feel like it’s out of our control. When we name it, we can do something about it. Saying the words “danger” and “safe” give us power to clarify the situation and our responses.
We can create perceived safety to pair with actual safety by actively exercising our mind to challenge these interpretations. Saying things like “I am ok. I am safe.” And “He is asking me to make a small change.” Or “even if he does fire me, which is not likely, I will not starve to death. I’ll just find another job.” Or “I’m safe.” Saying things like this can be helpful in challenging those thoughts.
Another Way to Think About the Anxiety Response
Here’s another way to think about our anxiety response that can help you soothe fear and anxiety.
Why do you think our survival instincts are triggered by things like peer rejection or our jobs? Because ancient people would have starved to death if something went wrong with their job or if they were kicked out of the tribe.
One of the things we can do when we are feeling freaked out is to ask ourselves ”Does this situation really present a threat to my survival?” or “If I don’t get this report in, am I actually going to die of starvation?” or “If I get turned down by my crush, will I be kicked out of the tribe and have to wander the wilderness alone?”
Reminding our minds and bodies that we are safe will help us calm down and most likely help us do a better job on the report or keep our voice steady when we ask that guy out.
Take a minute to identify one stressor and ask the question ”Where is the survival fear here? Is it a valid fear?”
We are not dependent on circumstance to feel safe. We create emotional safety within ourselves through integrity. We create emotional safety in our relationships through consistency and compassion. We create physical safety through our perception and, as needed, through our actions.
Now for the important part: start to pair actual safety with perceived safety throughout your day. For example, when you notice yourself getting stressed, say “I am safe right now” and use triggers from your lists to remind your nervous system that you are indeed safe.
When I worked in Wilderness Therapy, some of my calming triggers were looking at the blue sky, smelling sagebrush, or taking a five-minute walk alone. What are the things that help you feel grounded, safe, or comforted?
A note on actual danger: If you are in a situation of actual danger (i.e. you are in an abusive relationship, you are on the verge of starving to death, or you have someone threatening your life), then it is not helpful to attempt to change your perception. It’s not safe and it won’t work because it’s not truthful to say “I am safe” when you are not safe.
Instead, focus on creating safety through action (getting yourself out of that situation). In actual danger, it can also be beneficial to practice calming your body to help you make better choices and take action.
By planting, watering, and fostering seeds of safe thoughts, sensations, and activities and by focusing on the present moment, we actually exercise our parasympathetic nervous system and develop self-regulatory neural pathways in the same way that an athlete would develop muscles.
In summary, chronic stress and even getting momentarily flustered, overwhelmed, or anxious are about perceived threats. If you get really uptight in meetings at work or bristle when receiving feedback, if you experience PTSD symptoms or just get flustered while making dinner for guests, then you can benefit from understanding the difference between perceived safety and actual danger.
When we believe we are in danger, our body and mind create the same physical anxiety reaction as if we were in actual physical danger. This keeps us stuck in FFF response (NS hyperarousal). How we think about things, how we interpret our situation creates a sense of calm or of stress depending on how we think.
So you can foster a calm mind and nervous system by:
- Noticing that you feel in danger when you’re actually safe.
- Questioning your interpretation of events.
- Asking ”Am I actually in physical danger right now?” If the answer is no, then it’s best to regulate your nervous system by bringing to mind the perception of safety or creating that felt sense of safety. We can do that by:
- Saying “This feels dangerous, but I’m actually safe.”
- Soothing your body.
- Doing activities like drawing safety or — now I really encourage you to do this activity next because you’re going to feel a shift in your body, a shift to calm when you do it.
- Creating lists of things that help you feel safe.
We can actively counteract the negative effects of anxiety by reaffirming that we are actually safe right here, in the present moment.
Drawing Safety Activity
Get out a piece of paper and some drawing supplies. Set a five-minute timer and begin to think about a place or activity where you feel safe and relaxed. Start drawing that place (this triggers the visual cortex of the brain, an important part of memory).
It doesn’t matter if your drawing is pretty in any way. The whole purpose is to put focused imagination into creating perceived safety.
Continue thinking about and adding in any detail you can think of. At the end of the activity, check in with yourself. Notice the sensations in your body. What are you feeling?
One of the reasons this activity can be powerful is that it uses the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes sight, to create safety.