So many of us have become wary of others – to the point of not trusting anyone, and even avoiding places where there are other people. This wariness or anxiety about our safety and well-being can severely limit our capacity to enjoy life, and takes its toll on our health as well. So how do we know who, when, or how to trust?
Consider this photo of a zebra and a lion, side-by-side drinking at a waterhole. What or who is the zebra trusting that allows her to lower her head and drink water so close to a lion? (A lowered head means greater vulnerability – she will be milliseconds slower if she needs to run, and she also has less awareness of her broader environment.)
How does she know she is safe?
She is trusting her neuroception (a term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges). This is her inner surveillance system – her body’s capacity to sense subtle nuances and shifts in her environment that can detect threats or safety. Outside the realm of her conscious awareness, her nervous system is continuously evaluating risk in the environment, making judgments, and prioritizing behaviors. As soon as the lion has a thought about eating her, she would be long gone. This is because even without moving, his body would be responding to his thought and it would be preparing ever so slightly in readiness for the attack. The zebra’s neuroception would detect such shifts and respond in accordance with appropriate survival behaviour. Consequently, she has no need to trust the lion. She trusts her own internal surveillance system.
“Our nervous system functions as a sentry by continuously evaluating risk in the environment. Through neural surveillance mechanisms (neuroception), our brain identifies features of risk or safety. Many of the features of risk and safety are not learned, but rather are hardwired into our nervous system and reflect adaptive strategies associated with our phylogenetic history.” ~ Stephen Porges
What if the lion and zebra were humans?
If the lion and the zebra were humans, the story might be a little different. The lion might be saying something like, “I’m not like all the other lions. I don’t actually like killing zebras.” Or maybe, “You are the first zebra I don’t feel like killing. Maybe we could become friends.” And perhaps the zebra has become separated from her herd, so it is enticing to have a lion as a friend, and she thinks that maybe he would protect her. After all, he said he wanted to be friends.
It sounds a little silly when presented this way, but perhaps it’s a little ‘close to home,’ because most of us have had the experience of trusting someone when we shouldn’t have. We probably believed (or wanted to believe) what they were saying and ignored or didn’t notice our inner guidance system alerting us to be careful.
We are not zebras or are we?
It’s true that we are not zebras. And although we don’t have the same range of sight or the acute sense of smell, we still have the same nervous system responses that can detect safety or danger in our environment. According to Dr. Porges, “Even though we may not be aware of danger on a cognitive level, on a neurophysiological level, our bodies have already started a sequence of neural processes that would facilitate adaptive defense behaviors such as fight, flight, or freeze.”
Trust is an inside job
We are not meant to put our unwavering trust in others. We can’t always know their true intentions or what influences they have on them that compels them to hurt or betray us. We can however trust that little niggling feeling, or the churning in our gut, or the overall sense that something is not right, or a sense of dis-ease, or feeling unsettled – even for no apparent reason. This is our neuroception doing its job – which is to keep us safe and alive. It detects a threat in our environment that we may otherwise be oblivious to. We need to cultivate the ability to not only listen to the messages from our bodies, but obey them.
Why do we fall for the smooth-talking lion?
When we fall for smooth-talking lions, we may not be able to distinguish what is dangerous from what is not. This is because either:
- We override the messages our bodies are giving us with our higher thinking brains (which can get confused and/or manipulated)
- Our bodies are not giving us accurate messages
- We are disconnected from our bodies and don’t notice the messages
In the case of the last two, and possibly all the above points, we probably have unresolved stress, residual survival energy in our bodies, or incomplete defense responses. What this means – according to our bodies, is that ‘it’s not over.’ Our bodies simply cannot distinguish what is safe from what is not safe. They become hyper vigilant and detect danger when there isn’t any. When our bodies are reactive, our minds are searching for, and often making up reasons – which can set up a perpetual cycle of anxiety.
This state of constant (stress) arousal is uncomfortable, and even painful, so to cope, we disconnect or shift our awareness away from our bodies. While this brings temporary relief, we are not using our inbuilt surveillance system as it was designed, and instead, we are relying on our thinking brain to detect risk in our environment. Since our thinking brain is not equipped for this task, we are easily mislead, deceived, or confused – which leads to more hyper vigilance.
Our bodies must be functioning properly – as they were designed
Since we are in physical form, we will always be exposed to risk. Thankfully, however, our bodies are sufficiently equipped with all the mechanisms required to keep us safe. We cannot trust others or our environment without enlisting the input from our bodies. When they are functioning properly (i.e. our nervous system is regulated), our bodies will never mislead us. Our task is to listen to and cooperate with our bodies. They will reward us with a sense of peace, comfort and well-being, as well as alert us to potential danger.
How do we help our bodies to function properly?
Here are 8 immediate things we can do to support our bodies:
- Eat healthy food and drink plenty of pure clean water – this reduces the toxic load on our bodies and helps them function better
- Minimise exposure to any media that involves violence – this avoids unnecessary stress responses
- Choose uplifting stories to read and movies to watch – this encourages the opposite of the stress response (the calming / relaxation response)
- Practice mindfulness / present moment awareness – this develops greater ability to notice our biological responses moment-to-moment so that we can take corrective action
- Chose to focus on what is working, peaceful, kind … What we focus on we amplify – this helps us to train our minds to stay with thoughts that produce the calming/ relaxation response
- Notice emotions as they arise – name them, feel them, and allow them to dissolve in their own time – this supports the body to clear uncomfortable energies of various emotions
- Move – the body needs regular movement – this helps shift our state and release stress-related energy
- Spend time in nature – our nervous systems will feel re-charged by the resonance of nature – this helps to reset the nervous system and bring it back into equilibrium
- Educate yourself – learn how your body responds to stress so that you can work with and support your biology. Here are some resources:
- Waking the Tiger, by Dr. Peter Levine
- In an Unspoken Voice, by Dr. Peter Levine
- Healing Trauma, by Dr. Peter Levine
- When the Body Says No, by Dr. Gabor Mate
- The Body Keeps the Score, by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
When your body needs more support
When your body is holding high levels of stress, unresolved emotions / stories, events and trauma, you may need additional support to clear discordant energies and restore equilibrium. It is helpful to have someone with a regulated nervous system (our nervous systems synchronise with each other – the less coherent system entrains with the more coherent system) who can skillfully and gently guide you to stay within your nervous system’s capacity while increasing your resilience.
Consider booking a session with a Somatic Experiencing® practitioner. (Somatic Experiencing® is a modality developed by Dr. Peter Levine.) As you clear these discordant energies, you will become more resilient, learn skills to clear these energies on your own, and develop a relationship with your body that you can rely on to keep you safe.