The importance of safety in relationships

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The Importance of Safety in Relationships: An introduction to Polyvagal Theory and how it helps in understanding relationships

Human beings are social animals, and our ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships is central to our survival and well-being. Yet, relationships can be fraught with difficulties, misunderstandings, and even trauma. One key factor that shapes the quality of our relationships is the sense of safety that we feel with others. In this post, we’ll explore the importance of safety in relationships from the perspective of Polyvagal Theory.

Polyvagal Theory, developed by neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges, provides a framework for understanding how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to cues of safety and danger in our environment. According to Polyvagal Theory, the ANS has evolved to detect and respond to threats in a hierarchical manner, with different circuits being activated depending on the nature and intensity of the perceived danger.

At the bottom of the hierarchy is the freeze response, which is activated when a person perceives a threat that is overwhelming or inescapable. This response is characterized by immobilization, dissociation, and a shutdown of bodily functions such as breathing and digestion. When we’re in a state of freeze, we’re not able to engage with others or form meaningful relationships.

The next level up in the hierarchy is the fight or flight response, which is activated when a person perceives a threat that can be overcome by either fighting or running away. This response is characterized by increased heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension, and is designed to prepare us for action. However, when we’re in a state of fight or flight, we may be too agitated or reactive to engage in constructive communication or connection with others.

Finally, at the top of the hierarchy is the social engagement system, which is activated when a person perceives safety and a sense of connection with others. This response is characterized by the release of hormones such as oxytocin and the activation of the ventral vagus nerve, which regulates heart rate, breathing, and digestion. When we’re in a state of social engagement, we’re able to connect with others, communicate effectively, and form meaningful relationships.

So what does this mean for our relationships? It means that creating a sense of safety and connection with others is essential for building and maintaining healthy relationships. When we feel safe, our social engagement system is activated, allowing us to communicate effectively, empathize with others, and engage in constructive problem-solving. On the other hand, when we feel threatened or unsafe, our ANS may activate the fight or flight response, making it difficult to communicate effectively and damaging our relationships.

Of course, creating a sense of safety in relationships is easier said than done. Many of us have experienced trauma or difficult life circumstances that have shaped our nervous systems in ways that make it difficult to feel safe with others. Additionally, our current social and political climate can create a sense of threat and uncertainty that can activate our fight or flight response.

However, by understanding the role of the ANS in shaping our social behavior, we can begin to cultivate practices that help us feel more safe and connected with others. Some practices that may be helpful include:

  1. Mindfulness: By practicing mindfulness, we can learn to observe our thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them. This can help us regulate our nervous system and respond to social cues in a more flexible and adaptive manner.

  2. Self-compassion: By cultivating self-compassion, we can create a sense of safety within ourselves that can help us feel more secure in our relationships with others.

  3. Connection: By cultivating connections with others, we can activate our social engagement system and create a sense of safety and belonging.

  4. Trauma-informed therapy: For those who have experienced trauma, trauma-informed therapy

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In conclusion, the importance of safety in relationships cannot be overstated. The Polyvagal Theory provides us with a framework for understanding how our nervous system responds to social cues of safety and danger, and how this shapes our behavior in relationships. By cultivating practices that help us feel more safe and connected with others, such as mindfulness, self-compassion, connection, and trauma-informed therapy, we can create healthier and more fulfilling relationships. Ultimately, by prioritizing safety and connection in our relationships, we can create a world where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued.