July 22, 2002
Safety - Part One
Safety is the key to healing. When we are safe, there is no threat, and we can open up our wounds to the air. When we are safe, we can relax, sleep, and do all the things necessary to allow healing to take place.
In contrast, if we are in danger, we have to stay closed, guarded, and tight. In other words, we have to erect walls and shields to protect us.
From the medical point of view, our nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action by raising the blood pressure and the pulse rate, and diverting blood from the central organs to the body periphery (muscles). All of this activity prepares the body for instant physical and mental activity. This is the body's reaction to danger, the classic "fight-or-flight" response.
The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant when the individual feels non-threatened and safe. Blood pressure and heart rate drop, blood vessels open up, and blood returns to the body center. The muscles relax, energy is conserved, and the healing processes of the body are able to function. The parasympathetic state is the essential state for healing.
Emotional healing is also a part of this. Since the emotions are a reflection of physical processes (and vice-versa), the prerequisite for emotional healing is the parasympathetic state, which only occurs with safety.
To understand this, I created a simple fable called "The Bunny Down the Hole." Imagine a meadow in the forest with a rabbit sitting and chewing grass by the side of its burrow. Someone comes running into the meadow and the rabbit, startled and frightened, quickly dives down the hole. Its nervous system has quickly moved from a parasympathetic state to a sympathetic one.
The rabbit will not come out of the hole until it senses that the meadow is safe. It will sniff, it will peek, but it will not venture out into an unsafe situation. As long as there is the threat of danger, the rabbit's system will not go back to its relaxed, parasympathetic state.
When we are children, we need our parents to protect us and keep us safe. If they don't, or if they actually hurt us, we have to create our own protection. Delicate parts of us dive down a hole. And those parts will not come out until the meadow is clear. Whether we realize it or not, we are like "the bunny down the hole," waiting for safety.
In the early, experimental days of primal and encounter therapies, therapists mistakenly believed humans would not relinquish their defenses unless the therapist aggressively broke them down. In other words, the therapist would reach down the hole and drag the bunny out - kicking and screaming. This approach is dramatic and can fool both the therapist and client into thinking that substantial progress is being made when the more profound, deeper wounds are still hiding underground. When people do a substantial amount of therapy and seem to remain stuck in old, destructive patterns, this is usually the reason why. I have discovered that, ultimately, the body (nature) can't be fooled. The bunny simply will NOT come out unless it is safe.
This leaves one very obvious solution for healing: create a safe environment, both physically and emotionally, and eventually the bunny will slowly and cautiously come out. If a therapist can create safety and the client can persevere and not be driven by the inner voices that demand instant progress, the process of healing will take over and the hidden emotional material will rise for resolution and healing.
We are injured when safety is removed. We heal when safety is returned.