Even with all the headspace in the world, if we don’t feel safe, we don’t feel truly held. Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author and sleep expert, explains that we need to look inside ourselves for reassurance and comfort…
To understand our need for safety, we first need to understand how our nervous system works to protect us. Our hunter-gatherer caveman physiology is designed along the premise of SAFE or UNSAFE. The autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that regulates vital body processes such as respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and sexual arousal, is divided into two main branches.
One branch, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), is the so-called fight/flight/freeze part of the nervous system. It enables us to fight threat and to survive. The other branch is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This is the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system, responsible for sleep and rest, sexual function, immunity and digestion. When we are thriving, feeling safe and sleeping well, we are operating predominantly from the PNS.
Years ago, I noticed a quickening in the pace of life, driven by the arrival of technology – email, the World Wide Web, mobile phones. In his book Faster, James Gleick described it as the ‘acceleration of just about everything’. At the time, I was working in a health screening laboratory and measuring the health of corporate employees, so I felt as if I was witnessing first-hand the impact of this quickening on our human physiology. I noticed that people were having to speed up to keep pace with the external demands, changing their ways of living and working in order to try to do so. The result has been people living in the wrong part of the nervous system – the survival system.
Feeling safe lies at the heart of all of this. When we feel safe, we react differently to the world, we make different choices, we breathe differently.
When we’re not feeling safe, the world and life feels hostile. As Deb Dana, a leading trauma therapist, says, ‘With our first breath, we embark on a lifelong quest to feel safe in our bodies, in our environments and in our relationship with others.’ Feeling safe has been a deeply personal mission for me, too. Years ago, I struggled with my own mental-health issues and insomnia. My own healing journey lies at the heart of my work. My mission is to help as many people as possible to return to their natural state of balance and energy.
So began my obsession with writing a book about feeling safe.
However, two decades ago, the world wasn’t ready to talk about feeling safe. Maybe I wasn’t ready to write this book myself as I was on my own healing journey – my own kintsugi journey of reclaiming and healing those broken parts of myself. But then the pandemic hit and suddenly everyone knew what ‘feeling unsafe’ meant. Suddenly, ‘inner safety’ was on the agenda and it was time for me to write my book. In Finding Inner Safety, I describe four different levels of feeling safe because I realised that you can feel safe in some areas but not in others. After all, human beings are complex and multidimensional. You might want to consider these four levels of inner safety and how they apply to you.
Here, we feel safe in our environment, our space and homes. We have food and water. Our families are warm and protected. This is the base of the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We also feel safe in the container of our bodies. We can withstand and endure, and we feel resourceful.
When we feel safe emotionally, we are open to warm and loving relationships. We are able to recover and bounce back from the tough stuff of life. We might even find humour in these tough situations. But, when we feel emotionally unsafe, we shut down. We don’t trust others. We avoid relationships, looking for reasons to leave. We hold everything in, grinding our teeth at night because it is not safe to speak.
When we feel safe mentally, we feel focused and purposeful. We are assertive and know when to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and are able to hold strong boundaries in how we use our time and mental resources. We are able to express our energy creatively and innovatively. Feeling unsafe mentally shows up as imposter syndrome and extreme perfectionism, the latter driven by the ‘mad monkey’ in our brain that says we can’t stop. We are ruled by must do’s, should do’s, have to do’s… but nothing feels good enough.
This is the ultimate safety level. Here, we trust the process of life, even when things are going wrong. We have faith that we will be OK. We can rise above the messiness of our situation and see the learning – the perfection in the imperfection.
What does inner safety mean to you and how can you find it?
Firstly, we must turn inwards. We have become so used to looking outside of ourselves for safety. We rely on social media and the news to tell us how to feel and what to believe. We’ve forgotten how to be with ourselves, how to listen to that inner voice of guidance and support. We can take simple steps to reclaim this guidance. Here is a simple technique that can help you to do this.
First thing in the morning, when you become aware that you are awake, don’t open your eyes, don’t reach for your phone. Place one hand over your heart and one on your belly and notice your breathing. Follow three breath cycles IN and OUT. Simply notice. Notice how your breathing feels. Notice your thoughts, their quality and their speed. Are they kind or punishing? Soothing or threatening?
As you lie there noticing and listening, bring to mind a thought of something or someone you are grateful for in your life. It could be something so small that you had forgotten, but bring it to mind now. And then drop it into your heart.
Breathe into your heart feelings of gratitude for this person or event. Be with the feelings for a few more breaths and allow yourself to soften with each breath.
Then go out into your day from this place of softness. Make choices from this place. Maybe you will decide to eat a nourishing breakfast to steady your nervous system, balance out your blood-sugar levels. Maybe you will avoid that cup of coffee knowing that your nervous system is already nervous.
This simple but profound morning practice can make a big difference. It resets the nervous system, bringing us back into SAFETY. It may feel like a tiny step but, done every morning, it will start to make a difference. It’s better still if you can find moments during the day to stop just for a few minutes and repeat this practice. Do it as you drop off to sleep, especially if your mind is wired from your day.
There are many other resources available to us that enable us to go back and heal those broken parts of ourselves that are perfectly imperfect and, at the same time, beautiful. They are windows and doorways to joy, happiness, peace and contentment. We can all feel these things if we are prepared to embark on this courageous journey. I offer you a roadmap for doing this in Finding Inner Safety.
This is the kintsugi of finding inner safety.
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a sleep and energy expert who has been helping people to sleep, recover from burnout and manage stress for over 25 years. She is the author of Finding Inner Safety: The Key to Healing, Thriving and Overcoming Burnout (Capstone, 2022), Tired But Wired (Souvenir Press, 2010), Fast Asleep, Wide Awake (Harper Thorsons, 2016) and The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018)