Alright, let's see if we can get deeper into understanding the vagal brake and the safety state!
This is the next step after learning the Polyvagal Theory. Before doing any direct trauma work, the safety state must be developed. It needs to be accessed and strengthened.
If we were to look at the safety state in one-dimensional terms, meaning, very basic or cartoony, this is what it may look like:
These experiences and more are obviously not always accessible. Most of us don't exist in these safety experiences for very long, if at all. Usually, if we do, they will be shorter lived or mixed with some level of defense.
Like connection. We may have an impulse to connect, but be shy. Or be empathetic, but not know how to help and feel hopeless.
The safety state in real life (and the others) is not the one-dimensional portrayals in this list. It's more subtle, but present.
It's easy to miss.
Safety is easy to miss
During one of my Stucknaut Meetups for course members, two of the attendees reported feeling ready to join clubs and meet new people. Both of these Stucknauts were in my Building Safety Anchors course.
When they reported this, I mentioned how our impulses to connect can look different. One of those ways might be joining new activities and being open to new connections with people. And I shared with them how one of my therapy clients felt an impulse to connect with people around his hobby of bicycling. All three of these individuals hadn't realized it, but they were feeling ready for connection and putting themselves out there in a way that felt tolerable.
Both of the Stucknauts in my Meetup reacted similarly: they smiled with delighted eyes and laughed at the realization that they were accessing the top of their Polyvagal Ladder and ready for connection. My bicycling client reacted similarly.
Having the cognitive realization seemed to be invigorating and encouraging for all three of them, reinforcing what the body already knew - they were ready for connection.
On a more daily basis, safety is easy to miss, yes. But safety is there if you're paying attention. Is it possible that you have zero access to your safety state and it's really just not there? Sure... but also kinda no.
Even if you think you have zero access to your safety state... you're here. You're reading this blog. You're able to be interested or curious enough to get this far. You have enough self-awareness and maybe even self-compassion to try to make change.
That comes from enough of your safety state being active to be connected with yourself enough to recognize you need help. Or to recognize enough of the inner world and feel the pains you have. You have some level of connection to the self. You have some level of connection to hope that change is possible.
If you didn't have access to your safety state, then you'd be in a defensive state. And if that were true, then you would be running, fighting, collapsing or freezing. If safety wasn't present, then you'd be behaviorally defensive.
That's why I don't believe that you have absolutely zero access to your safety state. Does that person exist in this very moment somewhere in the world? Yeah, definitely. I just don't think it's you.
I'll prove it with one simple question right now.
What is the current flavor of your immobility?
Right now, you're probably immobile. If you're somehow reading this while jogging, I applaud you. Also, make sure you're checking for people and cars and - you know what? Just stop jogging and read this!
You're currently immobile. What is the flavor of your immobility? Is it more defensive or more safety? Here's how to tell -
Do you have more relaxation or heaviness?
Do you have more curiosity or judgment?
Do you feel more calm or hopeless?
If you're more on the side of relaxed, curious and calm, then you have more safety flavoring your system. If you're more on the defensive, the fact is that you're still here reading this. And immobile. So that tells me you have some or enough safety in your system.
If you didn't, then you would be immobilized with fear, and that would be a freeze. You wouldn't be able to read this and take it in and ask yourself those questions.
If you were immobile without fear, but also without safety, then you'd be in a full-on shutdown. That could be collapsed and dissociative for fainted. It could also be stuck in bed and completely lacking motivation, being heavy, and numb and hopeless.
Either of these defensive immobilizations might be commonplace for you. But right now, in this moment, are you able to notice enough safety to be immobile?
The impulse to connect
Safety can look different for each one of us, but there are commonalities. The underlying factor as I understand the Polyvagal safety state is an impulse to connect. Connect with the self and connect with others.
When you're looking inward at the flavor of your Polyvagal state, ask yourself how much connection capacity you have. That might be the best indicator of safety.
If you are struggling to access or identify your safety state, I have a course designed just for you. It's for the person that is in their trauma recovery process and have a good understanding of the Polyvagal Theory. The course is called Building Safety Anchors and teaches you six different paths to anchoring in your safety state and strengthening it as well.
You will also get access to meeting with me twice a month in virtual meetups where I will answer any course-related questions that you have along with a small group of fellow students.