You don’t have to be in a war zone to feel unsafe. Many of us going about our normal lives run in survival mode, our nervous systems constantly evaluating the safety of everything from crossing the street to staying in a relationship. Or, more recently, hugging people or leaving the house. Survival mode can manifest itself in poor sleep, burnout, stress, and discomfort.
We sleep when we feel safe,” says Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert with a PhD in neurophysiology. your new book, find inner security, examines the link between feelings of security and our overall well-being. It draws on the work of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory (which examines the connection between the vagus nerve and emotion regulation), psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The body keeps the score (study of trauma related to the vagus system) and several others.
“I wrote this book for the layperson,” says Dr. Ramlakhan. “There are a lot of great books on safety science – Steven Porges, Peter Levine, Bessel Van Der Kolk, Deb Dana – but they can be pretty clinical.”
In writing the book, she draws on her own experiences. She grew up feeling insecure, made multiple suicide attempts between her teens and thirties, suffered from a longstanding eating disorder, suffered a traumatic loss, was arrested for shoplifting, and spent time in a psychiatric facility. All coupled with feeling deeply insecure — until she recovered.
“I had an awakening moment in Australia in 1999 while writing my diary,” she says. She had left her marriage, quit her job, and stopped taking her mood-stabilizing medication (against her doctor’s advice). “As I allowed myself to delve into the depths of pain, I encountered a moment of grace where I touched something inside me that felt safe. From there it felt like, ‘What is this, I want more of this, can I keep coming back to this?’”
This led to 25 years of working with individuals and organizations encouraging people to seek a sense of security from within rather than from their outside world. That is the gist of her book.
“People are built in such a way that they don’t feel safe,” she says. “Insecurity used to be about food, shelter and protecting our young. As we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security becomes fulfillment, purpose in life, to have a meaningful life. We must constantly expand our borders.
“The world will always be uncertain. We need to find security within ourselves – the inside-out approach versus outside-in. With technology, we look outside of ourselves to feel safe — we look at stock prices, our inbox, social media to see who loves us. What we need to realize is that the only true source of security is within. We cannot be satisfied. We need to put down our devices and start looking within.”
On a practical level, she says changing up her morning routine has played a big role — a clattering alarm clock followed by coffee and doom-scrolling isn’t an ideal place to start. “Even if I look at the speed of my thoughts, the quality of my thoughts, how I think about myself,” she says. “I need to connect to my inner security before I even get up, and there are very easy ways to do that.”
From eating breakfast and avoiding caffeine to fostering a positive attitude and setting a daily morning goal, Dr. Ramlakhan not to get stuck in survival mode where problems can arise. Feelings of powerlessness, hypervigilance, immobilization – caused by our nervous system being “stuck” – can lead to chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue and other burnout patterns. She explains how the vagus nerve – the main nerve of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – connects the brain to the gut and regulates breathing, heartbeat, appetite, immunity, sexual function and digestion.
Our internal surveillance systems
According to Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theorywe have “three ways of responding to the world”: the ventral vagus (“I can safely connect with life, I trust life, everything is fine in my world”); the sympathetic nervous system (“I’m insecure, I don’t trust this situation, I have to fight or flee”) and the dorsal vagus (“I feel extremely insecure, I can’t take this, if I play dead I might survive, I am powerless, I have no choice.”
In other words, connected, activated or disconnected. The same reactions apply everywhere – be it confronting a bear in the forest or in everyday stressful situations at work. “Our nervous system is the surveillance system, constantly scanning our surroundings and sending messages to the brain,” she writes. “These messages are then translated by the brain into beliefs that guide our daily lives.”
Within this surveillance system, we interpret the world both consciously and unconsciously. Our cognition is what we consciously perceive and evaluate – what we see, hear, smell, etc. – while our neuroception is “the antennae of our nervous system” that takes place below our conscious awareness. In other words, our gut feeling and our ability to sense the energy in a space, causing us to feel either safe or unsafe.
Interoception is the process that allows us to understand what is going on inside our body – is that excitement or fear? Am I relaxed or switched off?
“Insecurity used to be about food, shelter and protecting our young. As we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security becomes fulfillment, purpose, a meaningful life. We need to keep pushing our boundaries.”
breaking the pattern
dr Ramlakhan also explores why feeling safe isn’t just about the present moment — you may have never encountered a bear in your life, but you’re probably still scared of them. She describes the Cherry Blossom Experiment, in which laboratory rats were exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms while being subjected to traumatic stimuli that frightened and injured them. Future generations of rats bred from these traumatized rats still responded with fear when exposed to cherry blossoms, but without the unpleasant stimuli. The feeling of specific insecurity was genetically inherited. In humans we call this generational trauma.
“We’re breaking evolutionary timeline patterns,” she says. “The reasons why we don’t feel safe may not lie in our immediate world but in the experiences of our ancestors. We have the tools to heal this. I still had the same somatic experience of trauma that my ancestors would have had, but I broke the pattern so my daughter wouldn’t have to. The question we ask ourselves is: Can I do the work in such a way that it stops on me?”
But what about the day-to-day stresses of the workplace, from working high-pressure trading venues to the impotence of zero-hour contracts — how can we find inner security in a world essentially designed to keep us anxious and silent to keep?
“What I’m seeing more and more are enlightened leaders,” she says. She describes CEOs of financial institutions who practice mindfulness, who meditate and who share their feelings of vulnerability with their employees. “That level of authenticity in leadership creates a safe environment for others to say, ‘I’m having issues too, I need help.'” Which sounds great, although one does wonder if such an enlightened attitude has permeated all workplaces .
However, the huge hiatus of the pandemic has severely shaken our values and the way we live. “So much has changed lately,” she says. “Not just The Great Resignation, but also a great awakening — people are realizing things about themselves.” It’s important to remember, she says, that feeling safe comes from within our own bodies: “The ability to to feel secure is to acknowledge and work with the embodied experience.”
What about those experiencing the literal insecurity of war zones? “This is an extreme example of being in survival mode,” she says. “It’s not about sitting in meditation or making resolutions for the morning. It means doing whatever it takes to survive.”
She pauses. “And for those of us who are not in these situations, we must do what we can to help. Don’t fuel the fear, the collective hopelessness. Let’s cultivate realistic optimism and generate positive contagion in our daily lives as much as possible. Acts of kindness and celebrating the little moments. Don’t be ashamed of having things to be grateful for, because when we radiate that, we start infecting those around us with that positive contagion.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/dont-fuel-the-fear-how-to-stay-calm-in-a-world-thats-on-the-edge-41632310.html Not fueling fear: How to stay calm in a world on the brink