Why it’s easy for our nervous system to get “stuck” in an unsafe state

Did you know that the state of our autonomic nervous system is “self-reinforcing”.

🟢 This means that, if our nervous system is sensing safety, and our “social engagement” system is dominant, then we will continue to perceive more safety cues, keeping us in a “Safe & Social” state.

🔴 But, if our nervous system is sensing danger, then we will tend to perceive more danger cues in our environment, keeping us in one of these “unsafe” states – “Fight or Flight” or “Shut Down”.

If we leave kids alone (e.g. time out) when they are agitated, upset, yelling or being physically aggressive, it will be very difficult for them to find their own way back to a safe state, because their nervous system will be focussed on danger.

It is more likely that their sense of danger will become stuck, or even intensify. So if, for example, they were in “Fight or Flight”, they may become overwhelmed by the perceived danger, and tip over into “Shut Down”.

Co-regulation 3 slides (8)
Image courtesy of rawpixel.com / Freepik

This may look “safe” and “calm”, because it tends to be quiet and still. But it isn’t. In “Shut Down”, kids are disconnected from the world around them. In contrast, in a “Safe & Social” state, kids will be connected, caring, content, and cooperative.

That’s one reason why kids who have been triggered into feeling unsafe need the warm presence of a caring adult, themselves in a safe autonomic state, to convey strong cues of safety through their melodic voice, soft facial expression and relaxed posture.

Because kids are primed to perceive danger in their unsafe state, it can take a little while for the safety cues we are giving them to sink in. But slowly, and surely, they will start to feel more grounded and come back to us.

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