Monday, November 17, 2008


Let’s consider the topic of safety.

One of the most basic, immediate and continuous distinctions our brains are constantly making is: safe or not safe? Danger or no danger? This decision is made instantaneously in any new situation by the part of the brain known as the amygdala. Any change triggers a reevaluation. In a healthy brain, the amygdala’s instantaneous decision is combined with and moderated by information from other part of the brain, that add information regarding context, past experiences, reasoning, and observations from the sensory system.

If the brain concludes: Danger! Not safe! the body’s protective system is activated. Energy is directed to the parts of the body that will be needed for fight or flight. Non-essential systems, such as digestion and reasoning, are shut down. The activation chemicals in the body/brain are released, and the alertness system turned on. The person is alert, but focused only on signals of danger and safety. The heart is beating fast, the muscles are tense, ready for action.

Think of a time you can remember when you felt seriously unsafe. A near car accident? An encounter with a threatening person? A weather-related event? Even a common example like trying to drive home from work after an ice storm can be illustrative. In fact, an even more appropriate example would be being a passenger in a car when someone you didn’t know very well was driving through an ice storm.

What did you feel like? What did you do? What happened in your body?

If there was someone in the car with you, would you have been able to have a conversation about a movie you had seen, much less about something that was troubling you? If some one told you a joke, would you have laughed? Would you enjoy the songs on the radio? Could you take a nap?

To further elucidate the experience of danger, there is the experiment with the baby mice. (Panksepp, J. (1998) Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York, Oxford University Press) Some baby mice had been raised in cages. They had never seen or heard of a cat. Like all baby animals, they engaged in a lot of free play with each other. The experimenters put two cat hairs in the cage. Although the mice had no cat experience, the cat hairs were wired into their brains as signifying danger. Immediately, all free play stopped. And, also significant, when the cat hairs were removed after just a few days the mice play gradually returned, but it never returned to the level it had been before the cat hairs were introduced.

So what does all this have to do with our work? It is helpful to think of the children we work with as being stuck in the danger response. Because of early, overwhelming and unpredictable experiences of trauma, their brain chemistry was modified such that they can not come back to a relaxed state.

But the wonderful news of brain plasticity is that at any age, the brain can be rewired through attached relationships. In order to begin this process, and in fact in order to be available to attached relationships, the brain must sense "I am now safe". Since the brain patterns of danger are so deep, this will not happen quickly, but it can happen.

So it is important that we think closely and observe the ways in which our treatment environments are signaling safety to our clients, and the ways in which they signal danger. As part of this we must consider ways in which we as staff feel safe in our work places.

As you look around your environment, what safety and danger signals do you observe?

Danger signals could include sarcasm, not being allowed to speak ones’ side, restraints, loud noises, disorganization, emotionally dysregulated staff, belittling comments, physically ugly places, lots of damage and disrepair, creaky doors and funny noises at night, messages from other kids, boundary violations, bullying, messages from staff to other staff, blaming and scapegoating- the list could go on.

Safety signal could include warm tones of voice, respect, politeness, promises kept, organized environments, delight, fun, relaxed kids, caring messages when upset, physical protection such as locks, clear and observed boundaries, a sense that we are all in this together, team work, pleasant physical spaces, an appreciation of strengths and competences, a real voice in decision making.

It would be interesting to have a team discussion of this question. How safe does our environment feel to the kids- and to us? It would also be interesting to ask the kids to make lists of "things here that make us feel safe" and "things here that make us feel not safe".

And as we do this, it is important to remember that unless the body begins feeling safe, the person will not be able to begin the work of healing. It’s not that they will be resistant or unwilling- it’s that their brains will not be available for that work.

Thus it is very important that we pay more attention to this subject of safety.


Anonymous said...

Glenn Saxe cites that mouse study - I don't have his slides in front of me but he might be able to get you the reference.

Patricia Wilcox, LCSW said...

Thanks for the information that led to my finding the citation.