I love the word, “safe.” Just try saying or thinking the word, “safe” right now and notice how it ‘settles’ in you. I often tell my horses, dogs, and grandchildren, “you are safe.” When I say it, I can feel my own nervous system settling and feeling comforted. And since children and animals are tuned into our nervous systems for their own regulation, they become settled also. A good practice with nervous or anxious animals is to sit with them and focus on the word, safe: you could try saying, “you are safe; I am safe; we are all safe.” Safe is one of the most powerful words in the human language. Use it often and notice how your body and others around you respond.
Safety is a felt experience
Safety is not something we perceive with the mind. You may have had an experience where your mind said you were safe, but you were feeling unsafe. This is because of neuroception. Neuroception, a term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges is our ability to detect threat (or safety) in our environment through our body’s sensing abilities and nervous system. This ‘surveillance system’ operates 24/7 to detect threats in our environment – irrespective of what our cognitive brains are doing. (People with unresolved trauma however, often have ‘faulty neuroception’ where they constantly feel unsafe).
Our bodies are constantly seeking equilibrium. Animals in the wild – who have the same nervous system / threat response biology as we do, will shake and tremble when the threat of danger has passed and their bodies feel safe enough to discharge the residual survival energy coursing through their bodies, so that they can restore equilibrium. Similarly, when our bodies feel safe, they will attempt to release the discordant energies of stress and trauma. This also includes the discordant energies of unprocessed, difficult emotions.
How can safety bring out the worst in clients?
“The worst” is the toxic, discordant energy held in the body that causes nervous system dysregulation and leads to discomfort, mental disorders, illness, and disease. An instinctive, natural response to feeling safe is to release the toxic, discordant energy to restore equilibrium.
Our bodies are constantly seeking equilibrium
When we hold discordant energy in our bodies, they are likely to:
- Attract experiences that activate these unresolved, discordant energies so that we have an opportunity for release and closure
- Naturally release these unresolved or discordant energies when they sense it is safe enough to do so – i.e. when the conditions are right
Why don’t we naturally release any time we feel safe enough?
If the trauma or stressful event is ‘fresh’ – as in it just happened, we often do release through shaking or trembling. Or maybe we cry, or shout and get angry (releasing the energies of the fight response). However, when the hurtful experience is suppressed, we (instinctively) need the presence of another regulated nervous system to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed with, or consumed by the release of the toxic energies. This is a biological decision determined by the process of neuroception.
You and your horses may create a sense of ‘safe enough’
If your horses are mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy, AND they trust and feel safe with you, their nervous systems will be communicating ‘safety’ to your clients. Naturally you have a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining this sense of safety through your own nervous system regulation. What your clients’ nervous systems are looking for is a stable, resonant and powerful energy field that can contain them as they release discordant, toxic, and uncomfortable energy.
It is not uncommon for clients to feel emotional or teary – especially when there are no preceding thoughts that seem to have triggered the release, OR an old memory instantly and unexpectedly surfaces. They may start feeling shaky or have some other unusual or unfamiliar sensation in their bodies. This can happen with or without going into their stories. In fact, it usually happens early on – on the phone, visiting your website, arriving at your place of practice, or initially stepping into your horses’ space.
HOW DO WE SUPPORT CLIENTS?
It is important to get somatic-based training for working with people who have had hurtful experiences, trauma, or chronic stress. However, you may already be working with clients, and if they start releasing unexpectedly, it is too late for you to stop the process until you have attended relevant training. Here are some interim tips that may help you support your clients when the start releasing:
- Bring your attention to your own body – feel your feet on the ground, and take a few deep breaths. The best support you can offer your client is to maintain a stable, regulated nervous system. It is easy to get concerned about another’s well-being when they show signs of distress. This concern registers in our nervous system as shallower breathing, more rapid heartbeat, and narrow focusing of the eyes. Your client’s body will notice this and it could amplify their distress.
- Explain to your client that this releasing is a natural biological strategy to restore a degree of comfort in the body (as long as it is gentle and not cathartic). A small release will produce a greater sense of well-being than a big, cathartic release.
- Check in with your client by asking if it is ok for them to stay with this.
If the client says no, you will need to stabilise them. You can ask them if they can feel their feet on the ground (to make sure they are in their bodies). Then orient them to the environment (brings them into the present moment) – a good practice is to ask them to look around and notice something that is pleasing (creates a state change). Let them settle, and recompose. It is not uncommon that new awareness or an insight will occur when they are in a more settled state.
If the client says yes, tell them to take their time (you don’t want them to rush through it or suppress it). While the client is releasing:
- Do not attempt to interrupt, fix, or even soothe the client
- Maintain your own calming presence
- Contain the client’s releasing so that it is gentle and not overwhelming or re-traumatising their nervous system. If the releasing seems to be intensifying a little, invite them to slow down and take a breath. If the releasing is increasingly intensifying, interrupt and explain that their bodies need a chance to catch up. Invite them to pause and orient them to the environment (see pt. 3). Once they are settled, they may want to go back and continue.
4. When the client is recomposed and settled, check in and ask what is different. (There will always be something different because we are dynamic beings.)
5. If it seems there is more to process, you can ask the client if they wish to revisit what they were just processing.
What happens when we support our clients this way?
While the above steps may seem simple, they can have profound outcomes such as:
- Validating for your client – to have the gift of your presence and unconditional positive regard, and the time and space to experience themselves is healing in and of itself
- Creates more resilience – as discordant energy is gently released, your client literally has more capacity to deal with day-to-day challenges. This may show up as being more relaxed, and less reactive
- Your client develops more trust and confidence in their capacity to experience difficult emotions without being overwhelmed
These are some brief tips to help you support your clients. There is so much we can do to safely shepherd our clients’ release of heavy, toxic energy and painful memories and emotions in order to restore well-being and build resilience, which does not impose a heavy burden on our horses.
By Cindy Jacobs
CEEL Co-founder and trainer