Feeling Safe Happy
As 2021 comes to its Omicron-tempered close, I finally feel like writing again. This blog has been dormant, present in a shadowed corner of my life, patiently awaiting my energy for writing to return. I read something today that gave me the needed push: "It's good to feel safe happy." Funny how a few words have the power to flip the switch! So here goes.
"It's good to feel safe happy." What does that even mean? For me, my understanding of "safe happy" is more felt than thought, and is consistent with my 2021 obsession: The Polyvagal Theory.* Have you ever thought about what neurological state you're in when not surviving in fight, flight, freeze, or submit? (Did the past 21 months allow you to be in any other state?) "Safe happy" is a good way to describe an alternative. As mammals evolved, our autonomic (subconscious) nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, developed a second branch. The original dorsal branch, unmyelinated, relays messages from lower abdominal organs (that "gut" feeling), including from the microbes in our intestines, to our survival brain. Think of these messages as unrefined, traveling at a slower velocity than the second, more recently evolved branch: the myelinated ventral complex, or "safe and social" side of the vagus nerve.
Also referred to as the "social engagement" side of the parasympathetic nervous system, this ventral branch connects organs above the diaphragm to our survival brain, and is activated when we feel safe - physically, emotionally, and morally safe. This branch innervates our hearts and lungs. It wanders through our voice boxes, weaves through our inner ears and on to our facial muscles, communicating to anyone around us what state we are in. Anxious, with heart beating faster, breath more shallow? Your voice will reflect this, as will your ability to listen well to someone else. The state of your heart will show up in the curve of your mouth. Feeling calm and connected with someone? The small bones of your ears will shift to better hear them speak. Resmaa Menakem, in his book, My Grandmother's Hands, refers to this as our "soul nerve."
Now, we tend to think of our brains as the CEOs of our bodies - I know I did anyway, imagining our brains directing how each organ functioned. Turns out that's wrong. Most of the messaging - 80% or so - travels from body to brain, formally referred to as interception. Western culture values rational over intuitive - tired? Have another cup of coffee. Headache? Take 2 Tylenol and keep moving. Does someone feel unsafe to you? It's all in your head - everyone loves that person. But we are wired to listen to our bodies. And we are also wired for connection.
So hear the good news! When we learn to listen to our bodies, and value the intimate connections of the body-mind, we can engage with it. Try it right now - smile for 20 seconds. No, I don't care how you're feeling - lift up your mouth corners! There - you just released a little oxytocin, the "tend and befriend" hormone. Feeling unsafe with the world as it is? Burned out from all the demands? Pause, override your survival tendency to focus on the negative, and do something - or remember something - that triggers positive emotions. Humming or singing turns on our safe and social soul nerve. So does anything rhythmic - knitting, rocking, drumming, walking. So does connecting with others whom we love, who give us energy. In fact, consistently engaging in safe group activities (choir! handbells!) thickens the myelin around this nerve, thereby strengthening communication signals. Remind yourself that in this moment you are safe. I am safe. I am in my warm home, with my dog snuggled against me, jazz on the stereo, husband cooking in the kitchen. I'm so safe that, dare I say it? I feel safe happy. May it be so with you.
Happy New Year 2022.