Finley De

Finding Safety After Trauma - Guest Blog: Finley De Witt

In this guest blog by Finley De Witt, Finley explores how to regain a sense of safety after experiencing trauma. Drawing from their experiences as a trauma practitioner and client, they discuss our nervous system’s response to trauma and offer practical steps to create a sense of security. This blog is a valuable resource for anyone on the path to healing and resilience. (Thank you to Rick Hanson’s team for permitting us to reproduce this).

“How can we begin to feel safe again after we’ve experienced trauma? This is a question that has occupied me for most of my adult life, both as a client and as a trauma practitioner. Safety is such a fundamental issue for any nervous system and really great safety protocols and properly informed, trauma-sensitive spaces and practices benefit us all.

Our nervous systems predict future safety or danger based on what has happened to us in the past, which means that after any overwhelming experience we’re likely to be on high alert, primed to see potential threats in all sorts of stimuli: a sudden noise or movement, a certain expression on someone’s face, the color of a wall. This information is often registered outside of our conscious awareness and so we’re left wondering why on earth we feel so anxious. It can take time to begin to recognise the hidden elements in a situation that make us jittery and stressed and to figure out what might be needed to help us breathe more easily again. Each of us will have a unique ‘neurosignature’ for danger – a complex web of memories, thoughts, beliefs, images, visceral feeling patterns and connections that are associated with overwhelm. Pull on any part of this web and it can trigger a reflex of fear. The good news is that the moment our ‘safety messages’ outweigh our ‘danger messages’, our systems will relax.

What conditions signal safety to your system?

To begin to be your own safety detective, think of a time when you felt moderately stressed or anxious. Think about where you were, who you were with and what you were doing. Note down as many elements of the situation as you can, including the sights, sounds, smells and other sensations you experienced as well as your thoughts and feelings. Notice how your mind and body respond as you remember these things.

Now, imagine that you can transform as many elements of that situation as you wish, one at a time, until you have created a sense of comfort and safety for yourself. You can change who you were with, what was said, the details of the physical environment and the events that happened. You can give yourself whatever props and support you like. Keep going until you register a feeling of relief or relaxation.

When I do this exercise, I almost always want to imagine more warmth or other physical comforts to help me through the difficult time, as well as a good friend by my side and a contained place to sit. Our ‘safety neurosignature’ will be as unique to us as our ‘danger neurosignature’, but here are some elements that commonly facilitate a feeling of safety:

  • A person or pet we love
  • A friendly face
  • Shared laughter
  • Engaging in a creative task we enjoy
  • Being in nature
  • Enjoyable movement
  • A sense of awe or wonder

Feeling safe in peopled places

Whenever people gather together to engage, there’s likely to be some level of trauma that needs gentle holding, even if it’s unspoken. I’m a lifelong learner and no-one learns well when they’re stressed, so one of my first questions when I’m going into a new learning situation is, are my needs and concerns met with care? Do I have a sense of agency and control? Here are some related questions you might like to consider when you’re going into a new group situation:

  • Are there real opportunities here for me to ask questions and make requests?
  • Am I given choices about how and when to engage, and when to take a break or a back seat?
  • Are my individual needs taken into account? These might include medical, disability or other health requirements, understanding of neurodivergence and/or respect for how I identify and how I prefer to be addressed.
  • Am I feeling over-compliant or people pleasing? Is something telling me it’s not ok to differ or to mention a difficult issue? A trauma-sensitive approach will enable us to disagree or make a complaint and still feel connected and accepted.

In new situations I also remind myself that I don’t know what other people have been through or what their own personal triggers are, and so I aim to be gentle and respectful rather than taking it personally if they don’t respond to me as I would like.

An interesting thing about potential triggers is that we receive more data coming into our central nervous system from our body than we do from the combined input of everything we see and hear coming in from the outside world. If we slow down and stay curious about our inner sensations, rather than being too quick to label them as unpleasant or unwanted, this can give our systems a sense of reassurance and possibility. If we start to fight what we feel, we may inadvertently create more stress inside.

Being realistic

There are countless methods available for calming our nervous systems, from breathing techniques and deep, vibrational humming to gong baths, flotation tanks, yoga practices, body scans and other complementary therapies. And there’s plenty of advice out there on nutrition, sleep, exercise and other aspects of self-care. These can be hugely helpful if we pick the ones that resonate for us. But if there’s an underlying, undigested experience from the past that involved a credible experience of threat to our safety, sooner or later it’s likely to rear up again, no matter how many soothing techniques we’ve learned. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed; everything we’ve done to create a sense of safety may mean that our system finally begins to trust that we’re resourced enough to face the hard stuff. It took me a long time to understand this.

The safety paradox

For many years, I kept asking myself why, with all my grounding practices, my meditation, my daily yoga, my social skills for co-regulation, did I still feel a deep dread that refused to go away? This, it turns out, was the crux of it: my dread could not go away. It needed to be seen and heard and understood. It wanted the old, repressed trauma to be witnessed, processed and healed. The parts of me that were suffering wanted to be loved and held. All the wonderful practices I did, beautiful and nourishing though they were, were also in danger of telling my system that my terror was unacceptable, that my most intensely difficult emotional experiences had to be suppressed, instead of honored and understood.

Through Stephen Porges’s work on polyvagal theory, I came to recognise the incredible things our systems do to keep us away from unendurable pain and yet I wasn’t treating my own danger signals like the valuable messengers they were. It’s been a paradox I’ve had to hold, these past few years, both for myself and in what I offer to my clients: do we try to regulate our nervous systems to find safety and containment or do we find a way to go to whatever it was that overwhelmed us in the first place so that we can help it to resolve?

If our trauma was long ago, in childhood, we might only have intimations of it, vague hunches that something wasn’t quite right. We may not reach clarity about what we experienced until our systems are ready for us to know; until we’ve found a supportive framework. It’s fundamental, then, that we understand how to go safely. Yet here is another paradox: we trauma survivors certainly require a lot of safety, but if we’re told too often about ‘containment’ and the ‘window of tolerance’, we may start to feel that our agony is too much to handle and then where are we? Haven’t we often felt that we’re too much, when in fact it wasn’t us at all, but the things that happened to us that were too much? It can be shaming to nervous systems that have survived the unthinkable to be told they’re fragile. In the right context, those of us who’ve been through the most horrible experiences can handle a huge amount – often far more than we’re given credit for.

Top tips for navigating the safety paradox

  • Look for allies who help you to feel regulated and who also have the courage to go with you on your trauma healing journey.
  • Find a practitioner who recognises that intensity is not the same as overwhelm. If you’re ok to be with your painful feelings, if you’re not fully taken over by them and there’s still an element of witnessing, then you’re safe.

Remind yourself you have a choice: you can focus on all the effective practices out there that increase interoceptive awareness and bring your neurophysiology into a more balanced state, or you can go for a deeper dive. Some practitioners aim to combine the two; I’ve certainly done sessions where we do some nurturing bodywork for half the time and then move on to explore the trauma, but I’m wary of suggesting that grounding or resource-building is always necessary. Another option is to titrate the experience. We can go to the painful stuff for just a few seconds, then come back. We can do this multiple times until our system trusts that we won’t be overwhelmed. This way, we build confidence about how much courage is truly available to us.

What to look for in a trauma-informed practitioner

Here are some protocols that suggest a practitioner is likely to be trauma-informed. There will be others, of course, and you may want to make your own list if you’re thinking of starting therapy:

  • A sense of shared ownership of the therapy space, including options on where to sit, whether to face the therapist or to look out of the window (or elsewhere); whether to have your eyes open or closed, etc.
  • Choice about how much space to have between the two of you and negotiation about all offers of how to work together – in particular any suggested exercises or touch.
  • A therapist who holds their own thoughts lightly and who trusts the intuition and direction of your system first and foremost, even if it doesn’t make sense to them at first.
  • A therapist who comes to the session without preconceptions or assumptions and respects your framework beliefs, your preferred language, your metaphors and imagery and any triggers you may have.
  • A therapist who recognises when their own agenda has come in and who owns that and can apologize freely when they get it wrong for you.

Claiming your space

Some of my own clients like to lie down, some like to sit on the futon mat or in the chair and others spend time walking around the room or sitting on a bouncy ball or a wobble stool, which can be helpful for some neurodivergent folks or for those who simply want to experience more of their body weight and movement. Some clients like to face the window and look out to the sea. Some turn their back to me. I ask them where they’d like me to be: next to them or further away? I ask them to take a good look around the room, to notice anything they find pleasing or familiar. We might take some moments to do this together, because a slow head turn in itself is regulating. ‘Ah yes,’ I sometimes say, ‘no saber-toothed tigers lurking over there!’ If we laugh together, there’s some great co-regulation going on.

A deeper dive: starting your healing journey

When we first decide to seek help with our distress, it’s common for part of us to want to rush towards the vulnerable stuff to get things sorted as quickly as possible. That’s understandable, but there’s also likely to be another part that’s reluctant or even a part that doesn’t think anything needs to change. Perhaps there’s also part of us that doesn’t want to be in therapy at all. No doubt all of us know what it was like to be made to go to school, do homework, or learn piano when we didn’t want to. And, intriguingly, some parts may not want to ‘get better’. Might we get less love, less care, less understanding if we seem more resilient? It’s an understandable concern.

How do we navigate all this? It’s helpful to offer all of these thoughts and feelings a seat at the table. A good practitioner will welcome everything, recognising that our skeptical parts are beautifully sensitive to anything that doesn’t land right and that our reluctant parts hold valuable information about fears and concerns that need to be explored. If we don’t acknowledge them, they’ll likely scupper things sooner or later. And if we recognise that one part of us says we had a happy childhood while another part feels distressed, it’s a great step towards embracing our natural, healthy multiplicity.

We experience our minds and bodies from the inside

For twenty years, I worked with a ‘hands on’ approach to healing, offering somatic methods and tools for grounding and self-regulation. When I was doing touch-based treatments like holistic massage, clients would often ask: ‘What are you picking up, what do you notice?’ I’d tell them that I didn’t set much store by what I was feeling from the outside, that we all have a different qualities of tissue density, different bumps and crunchy bits, and these don’t indicate anything much at all about the health or condition of the tissue. I’d let my clients know I was much more interested in what they were experiencing, from the inside.

This can be disappointing to hear, at first. It would be nice if someone could tell us what was wrong and go ahead and fix it, right? Practitioners have a map and can be skilful guides but as clients we’re the ones walking the territory and that has far more to it. A guide can let you know where you might want to head while you’re getting a feel for the land, a sense of the sights and sounds and steepness, and you’ll see crevasses your guide isn’t aware of. If they know from past experience there may be crocodiles in the lake, of course they should let you know.

Trusting your experience

  • Look for a practitioner who offers appropriate guidance, but who also respects your inner wisdom and moment-to-moment experience.
  • A good practitioner won’t have your insights for you or give advice unless you welcome it. They’ll be a secondary source of information for your mind and body and will offer their input with some modesty, willing to be rebutted if they’re off the mark.

Thinking, believing and distracting

The Western world privileges analysis, and psychotherapy and psychology have often lost their way in this respect, offering interpretations rather than following the innate wisdom of the client’s felt sense of things. This can lead to a cognitive bypass. Our inner worlds have their own logic and they don’t usually respond well to interventions by our thinking minds. It’s wonderful to be able to have great ideas and to connect the dots, but how do we invite in the rest of our material, especially the stuff that happens when our cognition is offline? Similarly, our beliefs can lead us to a spiritual bypass: some systems are very good at offering up flowers and chocolates so we don’t notice the poisonous snake in the corner.

More questions worth asking

  • Is my thinking mind working overtime?
  • Do my beliefs make things spacious so that I can better bear with the uncomfortable stuff, or do they let me bypass my pain?
  • Am I going in this direction only as a distraction from the rougher territory?

No need to work hard

I also want to offer that as trauma survivors we shouldn’t have to try so much anymore. We’ve tried hard enough, worked hard enough. I’ll sometimes say to a client, ‘Let’s not work on anything, let’s simply be with what’s there, let’s just visit with it.’ I don’t know about you, but my system doesn’t want to be made to feel it’s hard work to be around.

Notice the judgements

I spent a lot of time encouraging my bodywork clients to explore new language, because language shapes perception and perception is everything. When they said things like, ‘I’ve got bad knees, it’s old age, wear and tear; I’m broken,’ I might offer that it’s true that a pair of knees might have the kisses of time but they can still be good knees. There’s a parallel here with trauma work. Many of us have learnt to believe we’re being ‘defensive’ or ‘resistant’ when things don’t seem to be progressing as anticipated. But we do well to honour our valuable protectiveness that is only wanting to keep us safe. Going slowly gets us there quicker in the end.

Hope

In writing my memoir, LOVEBROKEN, I wanted to offer hope to anyone who’s experienced overwhelm in childhood. I wanted to show how trauma healing can transform our lives, no matter what we’ve been through. Our bodies have so much intelligence once we release the constraints, and I’ve come to know that our minds have that same brilliance too. Let’s start where we are, on territory we haven’t yet explored, with a clear understanding of how we can stay safe and yet give ourselves full and free permission to explore. If we do this, I guarantee there’s richness and meaning and – yes – magic and mystery beyond compare for all of us to find.”


Finley de Witt (they/them) is a writer and trauma specialist. Their hilarious, shattering memoir LOVEBROKEN offers hope to anyone who’s struggled with their relationships or their mental health: ‘Trauma has never been so funny or so shocking.’ Available from Amazon and other outlets (please note, if you purchase this book through that link, as an affiliate, PTSD UK is given a percentage of your purchase price, which adds no extra cost to you).

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