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Why traumatized people have difficulty with safety

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

You know the Polyvagal Theory has direct understandings and implications for trauma. And you know that the PVT describes the mammalian body's potential for accessing safety or danger states.

But did you know that a traumatized person has significant difficulties with being able to access their safety state? And do you know why?

What trauma is. Briefly.

In Polyvagal terms, trauma is being stuck in a defensive state. (See? Brief explanation of trauma.)

Safety is a challenge for a traumatized person

If you're stuck in a defensive state, then you're obviously going to have difficulty accessing safety. Otherwise, if you could access safety, then you wouldn't be stuck. I don't know if that's you or not, Fellow Stucknaut, but I hear this often from listeners of the podcast.

Those pathways may not be developed enough for safety. Not yet. Feeling your safety state might be uncomfortable, bringing things like feeling trust and vulnerability along with it.

In therapy, my clients will often get to their safety state and then feel new things, like vulnerability. But it's uncomfortable - at first. They look at me and make eye contact, then look away as they lose access to their safety state.

And that's totally okay. It's part of the process of coming out of a traumatized state. As their safety state increases, they will be able to extend their eye contact with me naturally.

For the traumatized individual, accessing safety even once might be a major obstacle. But accessing it repeatedly and building the strength of those safety pathways can feel like an insurmountable obstacle. I can help to guide you if this describes you. I built a course for you, that should be taken after Polyvagal 101. It's all about building the strength of your vagal brake. The course is called Building Safety Anchors.

Desperation for change

You may have a level of desperation you're feeling. Again, completely okay.

But that desperation stems from a stuck defensive state. Like freeze possibly.

It's desperation for change. For relief. For lessening or even obliteration of the pain that you're in.

This desperation can be harnessed and utilized eventually, but that requires a stronger vagal brake. So your desperation for change might be at odds with your need for safety development, which might be your next step. You can't make the change you're desperate for without the safety state being prepared for it.

There is hope!

Luckily, it's entirely possible to reduce the intensity of your stuck defensive state and to also increase the strength of your safety state. The two actually go together. As you develop the strength of your safety state, then the intensity of the defensive state reduces.

Focus on identifying what helps you to feel as grounded in your body in curiosity as you can. It may not be time to delve into the stuck defensive state. That day may come, but first, working on your capacity for safety might be what you need.

There is definitely hope.

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Robin Morris
Robin Morris
Jan 13, 2023

It’s hard to recognize your safety state when it doesn’t actually feel safe. That is to say- it’s unfamiliar, and as per our hyper vigilance, is therefore untrustworthy. Perhaps worse. The problem is, we just don’t know whether it’s ok or not, so we assume and prepare for the worst, and climb (or take the “Express” and just take a headlong dive) back down the ladder. As someone who is actively attempting to build safety anchors, at this early stage, I’m sometimes finding it difficult to distinguish between what is supposed to elicit a feeling of safety and a red herring meant to distract and leave me more vulnerable. The conscious and unconscious levels of the mind become very much…

Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Jan 14, 2023
Replying to

Great question, Robin. The quickest answer might be to ask another question - What helps that person to feel more in the present moment and access their sensory experience mindfully? This is different than what will simply reduce defensive state activation for them.

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