Cues of Safety: To Deal with stress, send a message to your body that you are safe (enough) in this moment
Last week I brought home two 9 months old kittens I adopted. They are daughters of a feral mother. While they have been in foster care most of their lives, they were quite scared to come home with me.
On the drive home they were silent - as cat owners know, that is strange for cats who tend not to like cars. When I opened their carriers at home, they both stayed in there - frozen. Eventually, they moved to hiding in their liter box. I could tell their little nervous systems had shut down in fear (dorsal vagal response, for those of you fellow neuroscience lovers out there).
The good news is, they have been with me for about five days and already come up to me to be pet (bellies too!!!), have sat on my lap and kind of snuggled in bed. They still run when I get too close to them (though it has been more of a slow walk away since last night), but when it is on their terms they feel safe enough to connect with me (ventral vagal).
Well, I created cues of safety for them.
As a psychotherapist and neuroscience nerd I noticed that they were in their dorsal vagal (shut down) response due to marked fear. And of course they were! They had just been taken from their second foster home to a new place by someone they had only met twice. To help them feel more safe, I sent them cues of safety - something that can help humans feel safe too.
What does that look like?
☑️ I have the Feliway Calming Diffuser for cats, so there is a soothing sent in the house.
☑️ I had brought their cat bed and travel carriers to the foster home for them to get used to my scent and put theirs on something that would be in our house when they came home.
☑️ I have been playing Hertz music for kittens - a kind of sound healing that is soothing.
☑️ I am using a quiet, gentle voice.
☑️ I give them choices on when to come to me versus me going to them. This helps them have a sense of control over their environment.
☑️ I have given them access to only a small part of the home so they feel more contained and less overwhelmed.
☑️ Visually, I have kept the blinds up, offered a couple of scratching posts, have a small kitty tree with a hiding spot included, and more to help them see they are welcome, that they are home - forever.
☑️ And to help release the stress from their bodies (i.e., complete the stress response which is essentially using up the energy of their fight/flight response so they can feel safe enough again) I have toys all around - both toys for self-play and ones to interact with me.
☑️ I have also been focused on keeping myself extra emotionally regulated so that I can help them co-regulate with me in the ventral vagal response - where they can rest and digest and feel safe enough to connect.
☑️ Best of all? They are bonded sisters and have each other. I have observed how they have comforted and supported each other along the road of this transition. It is the sweetest!
How is this relevant to you, a human?
Well, if you are feeling highly stressed - burned out even - identifying (and even creating) cues of safety for yourself can help.
While cues of safety are somewhat unique to who we are, here are some ideas to experiment with:
☑️ Seeing a friendly coworker or a supportive loved one
☑️ Your favorite coffee or tea drink
☑️ Wrapping up in a soft blanket or sweater
☑️ Connecting with a pet or even a therapy dog at work (if available)
☑️ Congruence (essentially authentic emotions when behavior and emotions match)
☑️ Your own breath (invite the breath to slow and deepen versus forcing it)
☑️ A lotion or essential oil you enjoy the scent of
So perhaps the next time you are feeling anxious, on edge, restless, and/or irritable, try connecting with these (or your own) cues of safety. Allow yourself to notice how this impacts your current state. You just might find that your body has relaxed, you feel more present, and you feel safe enough to connect
This blog is for information only. Reading this blog or interacting with it is not medical advice and does not constitute a therapeutic relationship. This blog is not a substitute for mental health care. Please be sure to seek out mental health care as needed.