Islands of Safety: Steps to Healing

Islands of Safety: Steps to Healing

In the process of somatic healing, one of the things we start off with is looking for “islands of safety.”

When things have been tough for a while, it can become challenging to feel or find any kind of safety. If the nervous system has never actually learned how to settle and feel safe, then we’re up against our biology as well. That’s on top of managing the ongoing day-to-day stressors of life.

Sometimes the nervous system goes into a bit of overwhelm, and it starts to feel like it’s “all bad.”

There’s physiology at play here: let’s look at what happens with physical pain. When pain becomes chronic, research shows that the body actually becomes more sensitized to it rather than less. This is called “Central Sensitization.” Two facets of this are allodynia (when something that is not normally painful becomes painful) and hyperalgesia (when a stimulus is perceived as more painful than “normal”). These are both an expression of a nervous system in high reactivity.

Current research tells us that pain is not simply a fixed response to a stimulus, but also reflects a changing response of the central nervous system over time.

We see in this phenomenon how our nervous systems not only respond to pain, but are shaped by chronic pain and stimuli, eventually becoming more and more sensitive to the pain.

When we are working with somatic healing, one of the first things we want to do is start to “unwind” the body’s experience of having a heightened response to everything painful (both physically and emotionally). This can take some time and work, but there are also practices a client can do on their own to support the process. In short, we help the brain start paying attention in different ways, to different things.

Steps such as writing what we’re grateful for and making lists of positive resources, when done along with somatic work and held in context of recognizing the clients’ entire experience, can help a nervous system begin to “look in a different place” and start to create some different neural pathways.

In session, we work with the moment-by-moment experience of the nervous system to begin to shift the reactions happening. Often, in a somatic coaching session, a client will have an experience of feeling some goodness, relief, ease, or happiness for they first time in a while. While a short bout of feeling good is far from the end goal, it is a powerful and important first step.

We help the system to notice and integrate that new experience of safety or goodness, and then continue with work to give the nervous system positive and pleasurable experiences. We help the client create little mini “islands of safety”.

Eventually, the islands start to “connect” and there is more of an overall sense of goodness as a common experience. With continued support, this can be self reinforcing as the client starts to feel better and better. When we couple this with somatic practices to help the nervous system settle and regulate, a new experience for the nervous system can begin to emerge.

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