Although I’ve always intuitively known that ‘self-care’ is important, I’ve never really been comfortable with how the topic is approached, and never really knew why. It was just a feeling that I had, that somehow, something was ‘off’ or missing.
Over the last few years my practice and my teaching has become more focussed on the idea of ‘safety’, both in therapy, and more generally in our lives. As my interest and knowledge in neuroscience has grown, so too is my belief that safety is a fundamental in self -care.
I came across a blog post recently, by Brianna Wiest, which challenged the more traditional approaches to self-care, and although it didn’t relate to safety per se, the ideas expressed intrigued me. She made the comment “self-care should not be something we resort to because we are so absolutely exhausted that we need some reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure”. (Wiest, B. Nov 2017)
She also stated that “true self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from”. (Wiest, B. Nov 2017) A lot of her comments resonated with me at a deep level. I realised what my discomfort had been. It was the idea that self-care consisted of something that we indulged in to escape our lives, rather than creating a life that we didn’t need to escape from.
So, how does this tie into safety? Our sense of feeling content, at peace and balanced comes from having an integrated brain and nervous system. This means that there is communication between the different brain areas to allow optimal functioning of each part. It allows us to use the areas of our brain that think, reason, problem solve, make decisions, and to have insight into and compassion for ourselves and others. it also allows the parts of our brain that keeps us safe from threat to function optimally, without unnecessary triggering at every turn.
Our nervous systems have one very vital, but at the same time, very simple purpose – survival. In order to survive we need to be able to keep ourselves safe from threat. So, our nervous systems are constantly scanning the environment, external and internal, for cues of threat or safety. Does this stranger look threatening? Is that a snake or a stick? What was that noise?
This process goes on continuously outside of our conscious awareness. Everyone has a ‘set point’ at which this scanning of the environment will set off the ‘alarm’, and the fight or flight response will be set in motion to instantaneously respond to keep us safe from threat. Below the ‘set point’ we can engage our ‘thinking’ part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, to assess the threat consciously. For example, the other day I was walking my dog around some trees and looked down on my jacket and saw something black. I experienced a ‘fright’….SPIDER! Rather than going into full-blown panic (which I would have done a few years ago) I was able to think that if I swotted it off with my hand, I would be ok. That’s what I did and carried on my walk unscathed! My system settled down quickly, and I returned to my normal, regulated state in probably less than 30 secs.
We all have a range of arousal levels within which we function well: Where our brains are integrated in communication between the different areas, where our bodies are in homeostasis, and where our emotions are balanced. When this is the case we feel energised, content, peaceful, alert, composed. We do what we have to do without effort, things flow, and we get nourishment from our activities and relationships. This helps us build resilience within us and gives us resources to draw from.
When we shift outside of this optimal arousal level, we get either over-aroused at one end, or under-aroused at the other. Either way, we end up dysregulated. This moves us into our defence or threat state, either fight or flight if we become over-aroused (anxious, fearful, agitated, angry), or freeze if we become under-aroused (shut down, depressed, unmotivated, cut off from feelings). We can think of arousal as a limited continuum, ranging from under-arousal, moving through regulation, and then into over-arousal.
Under-arousal Regulation Over-arousal
Imagine the continuum looking like this:
Or like this:
Which one would you like to be in?
In the first example, the range of regulation is small, and the amount of dysregulation is large. This would indicate that this person is easily triggered and spends a lot of time dysregulated. By comparison, the second example shows someone who much of the time is regulated, and only occasionally shifts into dysregulation. These people would experience the world as a very different place. The first one is likely to feel unsafe a lot of the time, while the second person would largely feel safe going about their day.
We can influence where our ‘set point’ is, where our range of regulation lies within this continuum. The good news is that this can change, it’s not constant, and neither is it ‘set’ for any individual. We might experience times when we have less resilience, due perhaps to life events, or ill health, when our range of regulation might shrink a bit, or other times when life is good, and this allows it to stretch.
Self-care is about self-regulation. Not just the ability to keep ourselves safe, but the ability to know when we are safe. And for some people this is difficult. Constant triggering of the fight, flight freeze response is exhausting and depleting of resources. It takes a lot of energy. The best ‘treat’ that we can give ourselves in relation to self-care is to learn how to self-regulate, to self-soothe, so that we are at less risk of experiencing ‘burn-out’, and can live our lives, experiencing the salt baths and chocolate cake as pleasures to indulge in, not as escapes.
Look out for my next blog to find out how we can find ways to help us keep regulated and feel safe.
Wiest, B. (2017). https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2017/11/this-is-what-self-care-really-means-because-its-not-all-salt-baths-and-chocolate-cake/
About the Author: Maggi