At the recent Trauma Summit at the ICC in Belfast, many of the presentations mentioned the importance of psychological safety when recovering from traumatic experiences. Researchers of the advanced trauma recovery models have been saying for years that to find regulation in the nervous system after an overwhelming event has occurred, one of the first steps is to find safety in the body. When a tiger is chasing you, it seems obvious that you need to find a safe place so as not to be eaten. When a bomb goes off, your survival depends on finding somewhere that is safe and out of the danger zone. As humans, our need to seek safety continues psychologically long after the danger has gone. It is of course a little more complex than this, but essentially psychological safety is the key to recovery and to thriving.
This may seem irrelevant to the business environment, however the same theory applies when creating the best learning and work environment for a workforce. Stephen Porges, a well-known psychiatrist who developed the leading theory on psychological safety, the Polyvagal Theory, sums up his life’s work in a recent paper saying, “humans, as social mammals, are on an enduring lifelong quest to feel safe” (Porges, 2022). Many leading companies have identified psychological safety as one of the most important factors in unlocking team potential.
The Polyvagal Theory is a useful framework to understand our stress response
The Polyvagal Theory is a useful framework to understand our stress response and how to mitigate unnecessary anxiety states. It is in the safe neurophysiological state when we can be present, be creative, bond and cooperate with others, and be able to voice our thoughts and needs more easily. Our autonomic nervous system is regulated when in the safe state. In other words, our automatic response in any given situation is more regulated and appropriate. We don’t get irrationally anxious or irritated.
Porges (2022) emphasises that our need to feel safe influences, ”our mental and physical health, social relationships, cognitive processes, behavioural repertoire, and serving as a neurophysiological substrate upon which societal institutions dependent on cooperation and trust function are based.” Understanding our emotional responses to different situations can give us more choice over how to behave, which helps to promote overall mental health and wellbeing.
“The danger signalling is dialled down”
In the therapeutic trauma recovery field, trauma is commonly defined as any experience or series of experiences that overwhelm our nervous system (Levine, 2010), hindering an appropriate response. By this definition we call carry some degree of trauma history—most of us have been overwhelmed at some point in our lives. Understanding our own responses to stressful situations can help us to gain control of our emotions in difficult circumstances. Learning how to develop psychological safety for ourselves can be enormously empowering.
Underpinning the Polyvagal Theory is our social engagement system, which is the interaction of a group of cranial nerves in the brain that affect how we breathe, vocalise, listen, and make eye contact—how we socially interact with others. If we can employ techniques to engage these nerves, we can change the inner state of our social engagement system and therefore change our level of psychological safety.
Simple tips to create psychological safety
What does this look like in practice? A simple tip I often offer clients anxious when public speaking, is to speak slowly in long phrases. This engages not only the nerves involved in the vocal cords, but also those innervating our breathing mechanism by elongating the exhalation. Long exhalations combined with voice activation serves to increase vagal tone and thus an inner sense of safety, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. Singing can have the same effect.
An interesting side benefit is that speaking slowly in long phrases, with expression in your voice, affects how others listen to you. They tend to be more engaged too! It is a win-win situation for everyone. I employ this technique time after time, always with a positive outcome. Next time you are anxious at having to give a presentation, start speaking slowly with expression in your voice and notice how quickly your nerves subside.
Another useful tip to enhance psychological safety given to me by Stephen Porges, is to stand or sit with my back against the wall when feeling anxious. With one half of my body safely against a wall, my nervous system only needs to scan 180 degrees for danger. Therefore, the danger signalling is dialled down considerably allowing me to focus only on those in front of me, instead of what might happen behind me.
There are many techniques to support psychological safety, but importantly, self-awareness of our physical and emotional state allows us to have more choice over what we say and how we behave. Nervous systemregulation, and therefore improved inner safety, will help both ourselves and our work community.
This article was first published in Northern Ireland Chamber Ambition magazine
You can learn more about implementing the polyvagal theory in practice at this workshop in February 2023
Levine P. (2010) In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
Porges S. W. (2022). Polyvagal Theory: A Science of Safety. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 16, 871227.