Our Need to Feel Safe

The deep need to feel and be safe is the driving force of all life, including humans. In this physiological state the body refuels, regenerates, builds muscle and bone, empties waste products, better fights off foreign invaders, and the organism thrives. Consider newborn babies who are cared for and nurtured by their families, especially their mothers. They not only thrive as children but have better health in adulthood.

A chaotic, even abusive upbringing predicts a long and harsh life. There are many chronic mental and physical health issues that occur that shorten lifespan and also markedly compromise quality of life. Raised in this environment, a child cannot reach his or her full potential when so much energy is consumed by trying to survive. Consider a young plant in rich soil with plenty of sunlight and water. Compare it to the same plant in poor soil, limited sunlight, little water. It may even look a different species.

Feeling unsafe

When we don’t feel safe, we’ll do whatever we can to achieve it. Feeling unsafe drives many, if not most destructive behaviors. Feel trapped causes us to react aggressively to solve the situation. The physiological response is called anger, which represents the body’s powerful last-ditch effort to regain control.

Since the most stressful problems are ones we can’t solve, sustained anger (threat physiology) turns into rage, destructive behaviors, and chronic illnesses as the body breaks down. Consider how many life situations are unsolvable. One of the deadliest and universal problems is feeling trapped by our thoughts.

We cannot escape our thoughts. Suppressing unpleasant thoughts fires up the threat response even more than experiencing them. Suppression causes the hippocampus (memory center) of the brain to shrink1 and increases craving for opioids.2  Distracting ourselves with experiences, pursuing pleasure, adventures, and achievements also fires up the immune system.3

So how do we behave?


Addictions create a sense of safety while engaged in the activity, but obviously are not long-term solutions. The reason addictions are so destructive is they temporarily mask mental and physical pain, and pursuing relief is compelling.


A deadly outcome of feeling chronically unsafe is the relentless pursuit of power in order to gain more control. It can’t and doesn’t work, but few of us are taught alternatives. The manifestations are almost infinite and infiltrate every domain of our lives and relationships with others. People closest to us are the most affected. No one wants to be controlled, yet trying to control others is almost universal. Anger is generated in those being controlled and also in those exerting control. There is never enough to assuage the unconscious brain. Unfortunately, anger is intentionally destructive, as it is your body’s last-ditch effort to survive emotionally or physically.

The data is deep, beginning in the schoolyard. We try to avoid anxiety, or – if we already have it – we try to get rid of it. Nothing enhances our feeling of control more than by gaining power in some way. This need is expressed in our interactions with each other; in fact, it dictates much of human relations.



Every child has significantly increased anxiety when they leave home to begin school, regardless of their family situation. They want to be accepted but there is also the greater need to diminish their fear. The need to get rid of fear and gain power is played out in forming cliques, excluding others, and overt bullying.

Researchers did a study of students who have been bullied versus the bullies to see if there was any difference in their physiological makeup. 4 They looked at the levels of a substance called C-reactive protein (CRP), which is elevated in the presence of inflammation; it’s often drawn to determine the presence of a hidden infection. Chronically elevated levels also indicate a stressed and overactive immune system. It is not desirable to have an elevated CRP.

The study revealed that children who had been bullied had significantly elevated levels of CRP compared to those who had not been bullied. Being bullied as your introduction to the real world is not a great start. What I find even more disturbing is that the levels of CRP in bullies was lower than the norm. As it turns out, there is both a social and physiological reward for possessing more power. How all of this plays out in adulthood is not subtle. Why would you want to give up power and control? Especially when feeling the pain of anxiety is the other option.

Every child has a strong need to be accepted, yet what should we make of the fact that it gives him or her more power (and self-esteem) to reject someone else? This is an endless loop, the root cause of which is the solvable problem of anxiety.


The other as futile effort to counteract these deeply upleasant survival sensations is to pursue more self-esteem. This is problematic for seversal reasons. First, it is a gross mismatch of your unconsious brain overpowering your conscious brain by about a million to one. Anxiety and anger are hardwired automatic survival reactions over which we have absolutely no control.

Second, the unconscious brain never stops for a millisecond and is always on the lookout for danger. It is why we evolved and stay alive. The conscious brain’s attention is not sustainable and we quickly develop cognitive fatigue trying to stay happy. We also become physically tired as 20 to 25% of your entire body’s energy is used to run your brain.

Third, we are programmed by everyone around us about who we should be or not be. These voices in our heads become as concrete as any object and we act on them. Unfortunately, the “stories” in our heads are essentially all cognitive distortions. Self-esteem represents a huge distortion of labeling. We expend a tremendous amount of energy building up our ego, and then spend endless efforts defending it. The relentless pursuit of self-esteem disconnects us from the reality immediately in front of us. In other words, you lose awareness of other’s needs and relationships are compromised. Look at the human experience of how terribly we treat each other as individuals and societies. We have the resources to create a planet that could thrive yet we are at the mercy of our personal and societal “stories.”

What can you do?

Learn vulnerability. Being vulnerable is at the core of meaningful human relationships, but there is no reward in nature for being physically vulnerable.  Since emotional pain is processed in similar regions of the brain as physical pain, there are penalties for being emotionally vulnerable. Language creates a massive problem causing emotional pain that is much more complex than in other mammals. Anger, as unpleasant as it is, is powerful, addicting, and masks being vulnerable. Anger creates a sense of emotional safety, but no one around you feels safe. How do you learn to be vulnerable when you are used to dealing with a lot of anger?


Needing to pursue the above-mentioned destructive behaviors drops as you address the root cause of sustained threat physiology. You cannot control the survival reactions but there are numerous ways to regulate your physiology. When your body is bathed in safety physiology, you feel safe, connected, and incredibly relaxed. We use the term, “dynamic healing”, which addresses factors affecting your physiology.

  • Input – dealing with life’s challenges in a manner that less impact on your nervous system.
  • State of the nervous system – calm or hyperactive
  • Output or the physiology – can be directly regulated from threat to safety.

The details of the Dynamic Healing model are beyond the scope of this discussion. The focus is on you and learning skills in each category to create “cues of safety”, and not on fixing or solving your pain. It is a healing process, and not “self-help”.

RUTs (repetitive unpleasant thoughts)



Regarding the onslaught of unpleasant thoughts, consider the metaphor of a hornet’s nest, with the nest being your brain, and the hornets your thoughts. At rest, the hornets are busy collecting food, building the nest, cleaning house, and reproducing. If the nest is shaken, the hornets will become aggressive and defend themselves. When your nervous system is inflamed and hyperactive, your thought patterns become intense, since your conscious brain interprets your internal physiology.

The usual approach is to use cognitive rational techniques to counter bad thoughts with good thoughts, which is an impossible task. Then we put up our “shield” (self-esteem, self-affirmations) to protect us. It also overwhelming and wears us down. Exerting increased control (suppression) is also futile. Then the more attention you pay to the thoughts your brain is fired up even more. It is a bi-directional process.

The answer lies in “quit shaking the nest.” The hornets will calm down and return to their usual activities. As your nervous system calms down, your unpleasant thought patterns will lessen, which in turn helps calm your brain. Although cognitive approaches lower the input into the nervous system, calming it down is a separate skill. There are endless other ways besides unpleasant thoughts that fire it up.

There are four aspects of creating a safe relationhip with your thoughts.

  • Thought separation
  • Calming the nervous system (processing anger)
  • Creativity – stimulating new neurological circuits away from the unpleasant ones.
  • Dissolution of the ego – once you learn to feel safe, there is less need for it.

Calming your nervous system allows you to feel safe. It allows you to break free of ruminating thought patterns frees you up to create and live life on your terms.


  1. Hulbert JC, et al. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2016); 7:11003 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11003
  2. Garland EL, et al. Thought suppression as a mediator of the association between depressed mood and prescription opioid craving among chronic pain patients. J Behav Med (2016); 39:128–138. 10.1007/s10865-015-9675-9
  3. Cole SW, et al. Social Regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology (2007); 8:R189. doi: 10.1186/gb-2007-8-9-r189
  4. Copeland W, et al.” Childhood bullying involvement predicts low-grade systemic inflammation into adulthood.” PNAS (2014); 111: 7570-7575.