couple walking on bridge dog

…the theory explains how safety is not the removal of threat and that feeling safe is dependent on unique cues in the environment and our relationships that have an active inhibition on defense circuits and promote health and feelings of love and trust. — Dr. Stephen Porges speaking of the polyvagal theory

I take the above quote to mean, it is not the threat that is the problem, it is the absence of safety cues. So for example, if we disagree with our spouse, the disagreement is not the problem. A lack of vocal reassurance and accepting body language from them is.

In other words, we need a safe environment and others to help us not act defensive.

Safety is subconscious

Intellectually, we can all visualize what safety looks like and possibly even describe what it feels like, but our body or nervous system senses safety differently. It is a process below consciousness.

We have visceral reactions to people and places that we have no control over due to the safety or lack of safety cues they put out.

What happens in our bodies when we feel threatened

Some things that happen to us when we don’t feel safe are: our heart rate elevates, we perspire, our digestive system shuts down, we breathe shallowly and we avert our gaze.

An element of the body that reacts to our feelings of threat or safety is the vagal nerve. The vagal nerve is a bi-directional nerve that extends from the brain to the organs in the body. It allows messages to pass back and forth between the brain and the heart, stomach, intestines, etc.

One part of the vagal nerve helps with calming us down. It influences the heart to beat slower. This is called the vagal brake. If we don’t have good vagal nerve control, we can react strongly to every stimuli we deem mildly worrisome.

People who have been through trauma, have nervous systems that are quicker to go into defense mode — fight or flight response. Fight or flight mode is not conducive to fulfilling social interactions.

It is not a huge leap to assume highly sensitive people respond similarly (fight or flight) but I have not found direct research or documentation to validate that.

Lack of safe haven perpetuates effects of trauma and effects of trauma perpetuates distress/lack of secure base. — Dr. Sue Johnson

How we feel on the inside affects how we look on the outside

How we feel physiologically directly affects how we present ourselves to the world. If we feel tense, if our heart rate is elevated, if we perspire or have digestive issues, we do not present as safe to others. Our facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and gestures give away our underlying distress. This makes others feel uncomfortable with us. Their discomfort affects their physiology and makes them seem unsafe to us.

We subconsciously perceive messages of safety or threat from others through their facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and gestures as well. It is a two- way priming for relaxation or defense. It can be a vicious cycle of unsafe feelings.

The kicker is, mammals, including humans, need long-term social interdependence to survive. Isolation is traumatic and compromises health. So we are left dependent on others and social engagement. We are always looking to others for signs we can relax with them.

Reptiles did not have this ability

The link between social engagement behaviors and physiological state is an evolutionary product of the transition from extinct primitive reptiles to mammals. As mammals evolved, modifications in neurophysiology enabled them to cue and detect the affective state of individuals within their species. 

High sensitivity an evolutionary plus? 

Our high sensitivity is a trait that evolution keeps pushing forward too. Our threat detectors are amazing, allowing us to survive and evolve. As introverts and highly sensitive people, we have exceptionally attuned nervous systems. Our conscious awareness of threats in the environment is often on overdrive. It seems our subconscious awareness also plays a part in our outward sensitivity.

Perhaps this is why we can only be with others for so long, before we need a break to recharge. Our sensitive nervous systems are constantly on high alert, making time spent with people a draining exercise in deciphering safety/non-safety. We can’t relax as easily as less sensitive people. We have a subconscious level of engagement that keeps us constantly scanning for safety cues. But when we find a community that soothes our nervous systems, we thrive even better than those with lower sensitivity.

We can’t socialize if we are keyed up

Polyvagal theory emphasizes that the neural circuits that support social behavior and emotional regulation are available only when the nervous system deems the environment safe… — Dr. Porges

In John Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Workhe states that we can’t hear or process our partner’s words if our heart rate is over 100 beats per minute. If heart rates get that high, he says to take a 20 minute break to calm down. If we do not deem an environment or relationship safe, our heart rate soars.

As I mentioned in my post How Good Are You At Accepting Others?, comparing and evaluation make us feel unsafe, defensive and inadequate. Finding others who accept us for whom we are, is essential. Acceptance does not mean tolerance. It means appreciation.

So the key is to find environments and people who make us feel at ease.

What makes us feel safe?

We feel safe if there is a level of prosody or sing-song like quality in someone’s voice. We feel safe if we observe tiny muscle movements in someone’s face that signal a light or positive regard. Body gestures that feel open and fluid, and not tense and rigid, also help us let down our guard. Again, these signals of safety are picked up implicitly. We are not conscious of the process. We simply respond with a willingness to socially engage.

Sometimes we have to go it alone

Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory says that being able to co-regulate our nervous system with others allows us to self-regulate when needed. If we have to go without social engagement with others for a while, we can calm ourselves by focusing on our exhalation. Long exhalations reverse the effects of a keyed up nervous system. They put on the vagal brake. Also, listening to music is a way to return our bodies to a state of peace.

Ensuring our interdependence

The more at ease and safe we feel on the inside the more attractive and safe we appear on the outside. The more safe we appear, the easier it is to socially engage with  others. Our interdependence is ensured.


Are you aware of how your nervous system’s reactions affect your body? How it affects your outward appearance? What can you do to feel more safe? 


Photo credits: Photo by Shea Rouda on Unsplash

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash