Human beings are mammals, and, like all mammals, we have a range of brain structures devoted to our relationships with other beings. Mammals are neurologically wired to be social.
In every moment, when there is another person around, these mammalian brain structures are monitoring the social environment, to decide whether the person is threatening, neutral, or nurturing. Subconsciously, we pay close attention to facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.
When we feel socially safe, the mammalian pathway to the parasympathetic nervous system becomes active. The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of the autonomic nervous system which governs the “rest and repair” functions. So, when we feel socially safe, there is a deep, nourishing relaxation that opens up.
It is much easier for a reptile to feel safe than for a mammal to feel safe. If there is no immediate physical threat, and the animal has eaten recently, a reptile will enter “rest and repair” mode. Mammals, however, respond to social threats as well as physical threats.
Being alone puts the average mammal into a state of stress (the exception is species which normally spends long periods alone, like orangutans). Even in species where the adults spend long periods alone, youngsters will be stressed if they are left alone.
Being ignored is treated by the mammalian brain as being abandoned, or (if there is a history of childhood abuse), as the precursor to an attack.
It is important to understand that whenever we are in a room with someone, we are either making them feel safe, or triggering them into states of stress.
With our romantic partners, this effect extends to all forms of communication, and longer term patterns of behaviour as well. When you don’t reply to a text message, your partner’s mammalian brain may decide you have abandoned them. Even if they are sitting on a crowded train, surrounded by other people, their physiology becomes that of a child alone in the forest at night.
How can we make others feel safe?
Eye contact, backed with a warm, encouraging intention, can be very powerful in intimate relationships. Cultivate an expressive face, genuine smiles which reach the eyes, and respond to any “bids” for attention.
The term “bids”1 was coined by the Gottman Institute, which studied couples interacting. They developed a way to predict, with impressive accuracy, whether a couple would still be together in five years. The key measure was how they responded when their partner made an attempt to connect.
For example, as I sit in a cafe writing this article, my partner is sitting beside me, working on his computer. Just as I wrote about “bids”, he said “they are playing our song …”
I stopped writing, listened to see which song they were playing, and then leaned against him for a few seconds while we listened together. The whole interaction took less than a minute, and left both of us in a state of relaxation and joy.
If I had been too focused on my work to hear what he said, I would have created for him an experience of rejection. Instead of being relaxed and happy now, he would have been tense and lonely.
What gets in the way of making each other feel safe?
First, it is important to remember that we all have a life history, and sometimes our past traumas make us feel unsafe, no matter what people do around us. Learning emotional coping skills is a short-term help, but the feeling of safety will only take root when we have done some healing work with the original trauma.
Even if we don’t have a major trauma, we all have minor triggers – the tone of voice our mother used just before she started yelling and sent us to our rooms, someone being inconsiderate in some way, someone not coming home when they said they would, and so on.
The key to a relaxing relationship is how we deal with these normal, everyday triggers.
If we go into a “defence state”, where our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is highly active, our eyes become cold, our skin becomes pale, and our face becomes blank. Our voice becomes flat and hard in tone.2
All these characteristics signal to our partner that we are now potentially dangerous to them, and then THEIR sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear.
If neither person de-escalates, the two defence systems will trigger one another back and forth until one of us leaves the room, possibly after several hours of accusations, shouting, silent treatment, crying, or whatever techniques our personal defence mechanisms favour.
This is reacting, and most people have experienced it. Most of us are pretty good at realising we need to get away from someone who is in a defence state, if we don’t succeed in calming the person fairly quickly.
So, what do we do?
Ideally, the person who is first triggered has enough self-awareness to feel the sympathetic system activate, and to identify what the trigger was. Often, that recognition is, itself, enough to trigger the release of GABA, the “calming” amino acid.
If not, the triggered person can use calming self-suggestions (“it’s OK, we’re safe, my partner loves me …”), and calming practices such as pranayama with longer exhalation than inhalation. For a quick fix, submerge your face in cold water for 30 seconds. This will trigger the mammalian dive reflex, which immediately activates the parasympathetic nervous system.3
If the person who is triggered doesn’t recognise what is happening, it falls to the other person present to help them to calm themselves.
Using a gentle, slightly higher voice, as you would when talking to a frightened child or trying to soothe a cornered cat (this tone of voice is calming in itself), say something like “hey, are you OK? You seem tense. Would you like a (hug, glass of water, break …)?”
Once the triggered person is engaged with you, help them to identify what triggered them, and help them to calm themselves. Unless the person has past trauma, physical touch is a very effective calming tool. Touch lasting longer than 20 seconds triggers the release of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
The bottom line: if we are not actively working to make one another feel safe, we will be unknowingly making one another feel unsafe whenever something triggers us.
When we are with significant others, the responsibility of that relationship is to keep our autonomic nervous system out of states of defence. – Dr Stephen Porges4
1On “bids”: https://www.gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/
3Using mammalian dive reflex: http://www.mindfulnessmuse.com/dialectical-behavior-therapy/how-to-calm-down-from-extreme-emotions-in-30-seconds