“I have moments I feel safe…but I wonder if it’s less about feeling safe and more about convincing my brain to forget it’s scared.”
My therapist asked me to think of a time when I last felt safe. I spent an entire week trying to remember when I last felt safe, and the entire week I was unable to pinpoint a time that I didn’t have an overwhelming sense of danger or dread. When I came back to my therapist’s office, I was ready to say that I had not felt safe…probably ever. However, what came out of my mouth was the sentence above instead.
Safety is an extremely important concept in the development of children. If a child feels safe with their caretakers, they can learn to push their own limits of creativity and interpersonal relationships without fear of physical, emotional, or psychological pain. Think of a toddler who explores and wanders away from their mother. At first, the toddler will panic when they venture a little too far and crawl back to their mother. However, over time the toddler will explore a little further, looking back for reassurance from their mother’s face that they are still safe. This foundation of safety from a parent allows a child to learn safe movements, safe interactions, and they will be capable of further exploration. This development of safety spans beyond the physical exploration of a playground. If a child doesn’t feel safe, through child abuse, sexual abuse, violence, war, neglect, or hunger, they don’t have a place that provides a checkpoint for proper emotional reactions, for healthy love and validation, and a promise that they forever have a harbor in the storm of life. Children who don’t feel safe operate in fear because they lack a stable foundation from which to explore. A life lived without feeling safe can be extremely detrimental to the adult the scared child will grow into.
The sentence I said to my therapist came out of me without preparation. I had combed over many interactions in which I should have felt safe: when I was in the arms of a strong and capable man, when I was holding my fully-loaded Ruger, when I was surrounded by people who loved me…and no, I didn’t feel safe. What I discovered as I told David about my feelings of safety was that although I never feel safe, there are times when I am not afraid. As I started listing these times, I noticed a theme. In those times, I was doing something that put me in a certain mental state that has been touted as the “flow” state. There are the three very well-known physiological response states that most people are aware of: fight, flight, and freeze. However, in recent years there has been the development and understanding of a fourth mental state: flow. Where the first three are typical responses to a perceived threat, this “flow” state is chased by intellectuals, athletes, and us normal folk to obtain a state of hyper-focus on a task.
The flow state is hard for me to describe…because time disappears. I have heard that some people struggle to obtain the flow state. I have found that I fall into flow state extremely easily, possibly because I am constantly seeking safety, and the flow state is the only time I am not afraid. In the flow state, your brain removes all external stimulus and gains “tunnel-vision” on the task at hand. As a person who struggles with feeling safe and with anxiety, it makes sense that I try to get into a flow state twice or more a day, sometimes for hours at a time. Intense workouts, coding, writing, reading, playing an instrument, riding the motorcycle, and dancing all send me into an area of such calm and focus that I forget that I am scared. I desire the flow state every time I am not in it, sometimes putting myself in unsafe situations to obtain the flow. When there’s panic or danger? I don’t usually fight, flight, or freeze…I’ll flow into a hyper-focused state where I fear nothing, time slows down, fear dissipates, and I am able to act.
So do I ever feel safe? No, not really, but I can try my damnedest to forget that I am afraid.