Creating Safety Groups
We thrive in safety. When our safety is threatened, we divert our physical and psychological energies and resources towards responding to danger. Only when our nervous system and deep brain structures perceive safety can we begin restoring the processes of recovery and growth.
We are evolved and designed to seek safety. And when – as most of us have, to varying extents – faced adversity, we are sensitized to scanning our environment for danger. Beneath the level of consciousness, we take stock of sounds, of potential cues, of the voices and gazes and postures of people around us. We orient our attention to seeking signs of danger, at the expense of all other life functions, contracting and alienating ourselves from others and from ourselves.
Often, without realizing it, we become stuck in survival mode, ready to fight, to flee, to freeze or to collapse. Our survival responses might be literal, or they may reflect adaptations, like using substances and other addictions to evade our sense of uneasiness and threat. The one commonality is that they detract from our sense of open-ness and aliveness.
Almost all our “mental” health interventions assume that we already feel safe. Unfortunately, most of us who seek care do not feel safe. We have been hurt, and – beyond our conscious control – our amygdala, midbrain structures and brainstem are hypervigilant for any indication of threat. If something out there, or inside our body, reminds us of past danger, these instinctual systems assume control and compromise our ability to process logically and cognitively.
Over the years, Harry has heard the same story repeatedly. So many people he has met or treated report knowing that they are safe and, nonetheless, still feel unsafe and anxious. This can lead to an enduring sense of loss of control in those who suffer from exposure to unremitting stress, anxiety disorders and PTSD. As one person told Harry after being hospitalized for a month for generalized anxiety disorder – “we had workshop after workshop to help us to feel calm and safe, but we never actually had an experience of feeling calm and safe.”
The challenge we face in our overwhelmed health care system is to provide the means to create an internal sense of safety that allows us to heal, whether we are struggling with more traditional mental illnesses or the many acute and chronic physical illnesses that stem from long-term activation of our survival physiology.
Creating Safety groups emerged from Harry and Irina’s vision of offering readily accessible tools to assist those who suffer without fully understanding why. We wanted to foster education and a sense of feeling safer in the world. We understood that this is a complex process. We also recognized that even small increments of awareness and abilities to self-regulate could stimulate dramatic effects on well-being and the capacity to heal from the enduring suffering of post-traumatic and stress-related illnesses.
In the emergency department, we learn the ABCs and then keep re-learning them. These are airway, breathing and circulation. They remind us that even in the case of a dramatic injury, like a compound fracture, the more life-threatening airway injury (or breathing or circulation issue) may be almost invisible. In every case we assess, emergency physicians and nurses bear this in mind.
Our vision is that one day every mental health and family medicine patient assessment will start with an assessment of the nervous system and the level of embodied safety.
Irina and Harry both come from a strong background in yoga and meditation. Irina continues to currently train in Qi Gong. We have experienced firsthand the benefits of long-term practice. Over years of working with others, we have recognized the many ways in which Eastern practices integrate well with Western models of trauma-informed psychotherapies.
Through Harry’s years of training and then assisting in trainings in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, as well as through utilizing this model in clinical practice, he can offer mind/body interventions designed to encourage healing at the deepest levels of brain and body.
Our workshops are designed to embody the core principles of yoga, Hakomi therapy and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. These include Compassion, Body/Mind/Spirit Holism, Non-Violence, Organicity (the belief that there is some force inside each one of us impelling us towards healing), Unity (the understanding that we are all part of a unified whole) and a focus on the sacred, alchemical and potentially healing power of the therapeutic relationship.
Our introductory groups focus on three domains that determine our level of felt safety:
1.) Breath: Our breath lies at the interface of conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit, mind and body. It remains the most powerful domain for utilising our attention and effort to effect change in our unconscious physiology. We teach and practice a wide array of techniques that employ breathwork in order regulate ourselves. Some techniques are designed more for long-term resilience of our nervous systems, while other work best during moments of triggering and overwhelm. We now understand the many levels at which trauma and stress affect emotional and biological regulation: these alterations are also addressed via breathwork practices.
2.) Grounding: We teach and practice various body-based skills that can assist in moving from hyperarousal or dissociation into states of calm and balance. These skills help us to come back into our bodies and into our ability to cognitively process our experience. Over time, confidence in our ability to ground allows for a more enduring sense of safety.
3.) Boundaries: The foundations of our sense of personal space lies in our embodied, somatic sense of boundaries. Without that sense, we are either too closed off or too open to what life places before us. Without establishing a felt, somatic sense of our boundary, it is difficult to break patterns of endangering ourselves, enmeshing or distancing in relationships, or feeling insecure and lost in the world. Through various mindful, body-based exercises, we develop our felt sense of restoring and cultivating an adaptive and flexible boundary.
In addition to these foundational skills, our programs also offer instructions and skills-training in the following domains:
1.) Psychoeducation: We learn how early and later life adversity affects how we move through life, and how our nervous system develops in response to adversity. Through short talks and discussion, we learn to appreciate the nature of trauma and adversity and to better understand how they affect our unconscious beliefs and how they play a role in how we regulate and function under current stresses. We also learn how we can “armour” against feeling painful emotions and how these strategies can be addressed somatically, as a prelude to begin feeling and processing emotionally in talk therapy.
2.) Tracking: We learn to track our bodies and our tension patterns. We learn to recognize important cues for determining our level of arousal and ability to process new information. The body is our best threat detector, and by tracking effectively, we can pick up the earliest signs of post-traumatic stress and dysregulation and take appropriate steps to intervene. This may assist in protecting us from descending into a spiral of reactivity that can lead to full-blown mind/body illness, relation problems, career problems, accidents and addiction. Tracking is a powerful and recommended skill for those working in high stress environments, such as First Responders, ER staff and the military; it can also benefit all of us living with stress.
3.) The Modulation Model: We learn to recognize whether we are in the Window of Tolerance and able to fully process and integrate new information, or whether we are in states of hyperarousal or hypo-arousal where our focus invariably shifts to threat detection and survival. Unfortunately, many medical visits and mental health sessions take place outside the Window of Tolerance, where new information is either not recalled or processed. We learn to identify the fight, flight, attachment cry, freeze and dissociate/submit systems that hijack us and to recognize their connection to triggering, mood swings and dysregulation.
4.) The Vagus Nerve and the Social Engagement System: As we enlarge our Window of Tolerance, our social engagement system becomes operational and allows us to be fully connected with others; to see others as allies rather than threats and enemies (unless they are actually threats and enemies – improved regulation actually makes us better at accurately detecting real threats). In our more advanced programs, we learn more sophisticated mind/body tools to tone our vagus nerves and to bring the social engagement system back online.
5.) Anger: We learn to pick up early signs of tension and fight response in the body and to intervene effectively before anger takes over and runs the show. We also learn to move from states of passivity and aggression towards states of assertiveness and confidence.
6.) Implicit Beliefs: Most of our beliefs develop before we possess the power of conscious reflection. Beliefs around safety, trust, self-worth and the availability of love and support are stored in the subcortical areas of our brain and do not easily shift by top-down (changing our thoughts to change our beliefs) interventions alone. Adding bottom-up, somatic interventions allow us to better appreciate the depth of these beliefs, their impacts on our life and relationships, and how they can be shifted and then integrated.
After spending time in our Creating Safety groups, you will learn the value and meaning of the phrase: REGULATE, RELATE AND REASON. We will learn that when we regulate our nervous systems, we can relate to others and that when we are in relationship with others, we can begin to reason. Often, to our frustration, we’ve been trying to live life or do therapy the other way around and have ended up repeatedly running into walls.
Healing begins with an embodied sense of safety. Without that, research is now telling us that – even at a subcellular level in our mitochondria (the cell danger response) – we are attending to threat first and to connection and thriving second.
As one of our attendees with severe PTSD told us: “I’ve tried everything. These body-based tools are the only things that work for me.” This isn’t the case for everyone, but they will make some difference, for every person, at every stage of life, shepherding us through healing and recovery to states of becoming more fully engaged and alive.