Why Feeling Safe Is So Important to Your Health
Imagine living in a state of constant anxiety. The crippling kind that wraps around you so tight you are unable to sleep at night. Your digestion is shot, and you find it difficult to concentrate and remember things. Now imagine you felt like this most of your life to the point where you being to experience health problems like hypothyroidism, migraines, IBS – irritable bowel syndrome and/or irregular periods. Now imagine you’re only 19-years-old. That’s the history of my patient Lisa – not her real name, who started seeing me two years ago.
Lisa arrived in my clinic, a fresh-faced university student, back from her school in LA due to Covid, seeking help with her ongoing gut issues. Bloating and constipation were her main complaints, and while we discussed these, she also revealed that she suffered from debilitating migraines, irregular periods and was on the pill to try and regulate her hormones, and she was also taking medication for hypothyroidism.
It was at this point I stopped typing on my computer, rested my reading glasses on top of my forehead and paused. I took a long look at Lisa – noting her eyes, her mood, the colour and texture of her skin – in general, her physical and emotional appearance. How could someone so young have soo many health problems?
When we’re young we are generally the healthiest we are going to be. Unfortunately, I have treated many patients like Lisa in my practice. Young, but suffering from a multitude of health issues – all very similar in nature: usually gut issues, migraines, irregular periods, anxiety and depression are also common amongst these young women.
And it is always when I start to see these patterns emerge that I stop and I very gently and very quietly ask the following question,
“Do you have a history of trauma? Alcoholic parents, divorce, neglect or physical abuse?” And then I wait. Patients will often well-up at this point and the tears will start to fall or they will nod very vigorously relieved to finally let it out.
Now let me be very clear, I am not a therapist. I am a healer. But what my practice has taught me is this, if someone has been traumatized and they have not healed from it, they will at some point start to experience physical as well as emotional problems. And here’s why, when a person has been traumatized, especially starting from an early age, and they continue to be traumatized say well into their late teens until they are able to leave home, they will be living in their autonomic nervous state – what we know as Fight, Flight or Freeze. And in this constant heightened state of anxiousness the body is preparing for attack and healing that may occur as a result of the attack.
But what if the attack is verbal, not physical? The body does not discern. A verbal attack has the same impact chemically on the body as a physical attack. Cortisol levels rise, chemicals are pumped into the blood stream. And over time if the body stays in this heightened state and doesn’t reset to the parasympathetic state where we rest and digest take place, then health problems will start to occur.
This was the case with Lisa. Her mom was an alcoholic well into Lisa’ teenage years. By the time Lisa turned 17 her body was exhausted and completely dysregulated. Lisa was living in a constant state of heightened anxiety. For her there was no off switch.
When we experience trauma directly or witness it happening to someone else, we need to be able to process it in a safe supportive loving environment. We need to be able to tell what happened to us to someone we trust who will hold the space and listen to our story or stories and respond with the appropriate social ques – empathy, concern, support and understanding. Emotions need to be felt, processed and then we can release them. But if we’re not able to process them then we can’t regulate our nervous system. We become trapped in the trauma. Our bodies live in a heightened state of fear waiting for the trauma to occur again.
When we feel safe, we live in the parasympathetic state – where rest and digestion takes place as well as repair and maintenance.
My job as an acupuncturist is to create a safe, healing space. Using acupuncture needles and healing touch I reset the body from flight, fight and freeze to rest and digest. This is so the body can start to actually heal itself. The chemicals get turned off, hormones get regulated and sleep is restored. This is the start of their healing journey – getting the body to feel safe.
While I work on releasing the trapped energy stored in the body in the form of emotions, I also recommend patients, if they’re not already seek counselling to help process their experiences and bring clarity to their emotions. I am especially fond of EMDR Eye Movement Desensitization Response and have found it to be very effective at helping remap the brain to release the trauma from the body.