Safety comes first: the ins and outs of keeping yourself safe
Your body tenses, you start sweating, you cannot express yourself and sometimes you are unable to control your reactions. All this might cause you to feel inadequate, ashamed of yourself, feeling like you are a failure. Thoughts are racing through your mind and it seems they cannot be stopped. At times you might not even remember what you did, but that feeling of deep shame is pervasive.
Does that sound familiar to you? Do you recognise your life in this narrative? If yes, then maybe there is something you can do to support yourself and start feeling more in control of your personal safety.
Such moments of shame and the feeling that there is something deeply wrong with you can be relatable to those who have suffered from traumatic experiences inclusive, but not exclusive to childhood abuse, rape, domestic violence or war.
Healing after trauma is not easy, however, you can start becoming more aware of your personal safety and how you are experiencing it in your everyday life.
In my clinical work, I often use the 'Polyvagal Theory' to allow people to understand what has happened to them and make sense of it in their own individual way. Surviving is not a way to live your life, maybe it is time to get yourself out of this state of constant energy-sapping emotions, by applying the newest psychotherapeutic interventions on your own, which can be very empowering.
The first step is to look at your personal safety as a traffic light system: green zone, amber zone, and red zone. Each zone has its own characteristics, which are as follows:
- When you are in a green zone you feel safe, content and able to socially engage with others. Your body is sending you signals that everything is perfectly fine – your emotions, thoughts and behaviours are coherent.
- Entering the amber zone is a completely different experience – it means that your body is sensing danger. You might become alert, tense, jumpy – emotions can escalate.
- Being in the red zone on the other hand can feel like your life is under threat. You might isolate yourself from other people, preparing to shut down, you can appear absentminded, frozen in fear, unable to feel, articulate or verbalise what you need.
The first thing you can do to support yourself is to start recognising in which zone you currently are and how they manifest themselves in your own private life as they can differ from the general descriptions above. You can write in a journal and then see your own patterns, like for example realising that maybe most part of the day you are in the amber zone.
Once you have the awareness of how these three states influence your life you can do something about it. What I would like to mention is the fact that most people are moving from one zone to another during their day, but without being aware and acknowledging it. Therefore, building understanding about your personal safety can be so significant.
The good news is that with patient practice you can learn how to get yourself out of amber and red zones and back to the green state – in 'Polyvagal Theory' it is called climbing up the ladder. How do you do it? Here are some tips:
Energise your body in the red zone
When you are in the red zone and feeling immobilised, try to first acknowledge the state you are in and try to rationalise it for example: “I might feel scared and unmotivated because my friend triggered me by saying something that resembles what my abuser was telling me repeatedly. This might bring me back to the past, but I will try to come back to the present moment.”
Then it is beneficial to do something that will energise you and your body: going for a walk, run, swim or anything involving physical effort on your part. Think about the activities that you like doing which give you motivation and strength.
Find relaxation in the amber zone
When you are in the amber zone and emotions are running high, then it is useful to do something relaxing that will wind down your body and mind. It is worthwhile to rationalise why you think you are in the amber zone so that you are aware of what/who has brought you here.
What can be rewarding is to try different breathing methods, relaxation techniques and/or meditation that can be easily found on YouTube. It is helpful to find someone with whom you can connect and find their voice both soothing and reassuring. After some practice, you will be able to apply these methods into your daily routine so that climbing up the ladder from the red zone to amber and to safety will be much easier for you.
I think it is important that you acknowledge one major principle – if you do nothing, nothing will change. Therefore, just start slowly acknowledging your personal ladder and states – you will be amazed to discover how resourceful you are and find your new depths. Please remember trauma will not heal itself – your active participation, as sometimes as painful as it can be, is essential to succeed.
Do not also blame yourself, when encountering issues – that is a normal part of the process and human experience in general. Perfection does not exist – just like Edison (lightbulb inventor) said: “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that did not work.” Therefore, give yourself credit for trying and keep going.
Deb, A. “Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centred Practices”, 2020.
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