Seeking safety in a powerful and nurturing group

by George Thompson

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Throughout history, humans have been in many different physical environments: steamy jungles, blistering deserts, cool forests, and the ice age. Humans have lived in the plains, by rivers, lakes and oceans, in the mountains, in the desert. These are such different environments. The one environmental constant for humans has been the presence of other humans. We have adapted to be with other humans. (James Coan call this the “Social Baseline Theory.”)

We have survived because of our ability to collaborate with each other, to solve problems, to create together. One man or woman in the jungle may survive. But a group of men and women who know how to work together is trustworthy and almost certain to survive. Belonging to a trustworthy group can give us a felt-sense of safety as well as actual physical safety. We feel safe and we are safe. We trust each other to care for one another and that mutual care becomes our support and our confidence. On a biological level, we get prepared neurophysiologically for collaboration.

Dr Stephen Porges, the researcher who first discovered and described Polyvagal Theory, calls this optimal neurophysiology the Social Engagement System. He says that our nervous system is constantly monitoring our environment, not just for signals of danger, but also for signals of safety. Because our nervous system is predisposed to be on the lookout for danger, it takes more than danger’s absence to convince it that it will not be harmed. It needs active signals of safety to gain that reassurance. Until it gets that reassurance, we might go into a fight-or-flight neurophysiology.

Polyvagal theory says the vagus nerve, which is called “vagus” because it wanders through the body like a vagabond, has two branches, one that is older, because is occurred earlier in human evolution. Then, about 200 million years ago, mammals developed a new branch of the vagus nerve responsible for triggering the Social Engagement System. The new branch of the vagus suppresses the fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-flight developed in mammals 400 million years ago. The fight-or-flight response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (think, adrenaline). It is the use of vigorous action to stay safe. We can’ t cooperate in fight-or-flight mode. We can only defend ourselves from threats. So, to come together in a coordinated fashion, we need to be able to calm our sympathetic nervous system. That’s the value of the new branch of the vagus.

The older branch of the vagus is responsible for the freeze-or-faint response. This defense mechanism developed in bony fish and reptiles about 500 million years ago, and shuts down many of an animals functions. Blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tone all drop. Faint-or-freeze is hiding or disappearing as the main protection. Think of a turtle pulling into its shell or a fainting possum who we say is ‘playing dead.’

Fighting and fleeing were a big step up from hiding and disappearing. But for mammals to take their next step, they needed to be able to work together, and they couldn’t work together if they went into fight-or-flight every time they saw another member of their species. Think about it — did you ever see snakes working together to accomplish something? You have seen wolves and beavers and tigers and chimpanzees working together. One particular kind of working together is nurturing one’s babies. Snakes don’t do this. Neither would we if we went into fight-or-flight response whenever we saw our baby. So we need to move from snake-like behavior to be able to be warm-blooded mammals, working and playing together and taking care of our live-born young.

Okay, now we know that we need to calm the fight-or-flight response to care for each other and work together. We know that a new branch of the vagus developed 200 million years ago to suppress fight-or-flight. But how does our nervous system know whether to suppress fight-or-flight, or to activate it? What tells our nervous system that it is safe for us to get close enough to work together? After all, not all other humans are safe to be around. How do we know if this human won’t hurt us?

As we said before, our nervous systems don’t conclude that things are safe simply from the absence of danger. Active cues of safety that convince the nervous system to open up from its defensive postures include an animated facial expression, an animated tone of voice, and non-threatening postures. A stony facial expression or a flat tone of voice can be a menacing non-verbal communication. Telling a story is a cue of safety. Lecturing someone is a cue of danger. Accepting the experience of another is a cue of safety. Evaluating someone is a cue of danger.

One of the biggest cues of safety is when someone demonstrates that they our experience matters to them. Think about it. Whose experiences do we care about? We care about the experiences of people who belong to groups that we also belong to: our family members, our close co-worker, our close friends. We know that we belong when someone in the group cares about our experience. Their face lights up when they see us. Their voice lights up too, vibrant and alive. They tell us their stories and listen to ours. They accept our experience. We trust people who want to know what we are thinking and feeling. We trust them when they pay attention to what we are hoping for and what we are fearing. Demonstrating that you care about what someone is experiencing is a sign that you consider them a member of the group you belong to.

Contemplate this:
Friends care about each other’s experiences.
Enemies care about each other’s behaviors.

Now, what happens when we do something like the Compassion Exercise, which comes from the Avatar® Course? It has five statements, such as “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for his/her life.”

When we deliberately adopt this perspective, we are demonstrating, at least to ourselves, that the other person’s experience matters to us. We take a moment to put ourselves in their shoes: they also want to experience happiness and to avoid suffering. What else do we tell ourselves? That having those experiences makes them “just like me,” a member of my group, someone similar to myself.

Doing the Compassion Exercise sends a brilliant signal of safety to our nervous system. I believe that Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar materials, is quite a genius. Asking us to think about how we are similar to others and how they are similar to us tells our nervous system that we are surrounded by members of our group. From an evolutionary biology perspective, our nervous system concludes that there is safety in the numbers of people who are on our side. This sense of being surrounded by safe people then creates a personal sense of peace.

I teach medical students to do the Compassion Exercise because I want them to create a sense that they are “in it together” with their patients. I heard about one doctor-to-be from my class who was kind of an anxious person. Before she saw each of her patients, she wanted to tell herself that her patient was in many ways someone just like her. Arming herself with this perspective, she could relax and connect with her patient. And that’s what happened: she would pull Harry’s little card out of her pocket, say the five statements to herself, feel calmer and more connected, and then enter the room. Imagine how much safety that communicated to the patient even though they had no idea that the student had just done that. They would feel well-cared-for by that student.

The Compassion Exercise is just one way to use Avatar to send ourselves a signal of safety. There are myriad ways that the other Avatar Courses, like ReSurfacing, Avatar, and the Masters, Professional,Wizards and Integrity Courses help us feel safer and more connected. If you haven’t done these courses, consider exploring them. But for now you can know this:

Demonstrating that you care about what someone is experiencing by doing Harry’s Compassion Exercise signals that you both belong to the same group, humans who are learning about life.

[Explore compassion further in the Avatar Forgiveness Option minicourse.]


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