Love and Safety
Research on the human mind has progressed incredibly in the past ten years and we now know far more about how we work than ever before.
Something that may be surprising is that love and safety are not simply "nice emotions". They also have profound effects on physical and mental health.
A few important things to know are:
The brain has two distinct halves, each with a different mode of processing and experiencing the world. Both are important. Both are affected by the experience of love and safety.
The "mind" or our sense of self, exists both in the brain and in the network of nerves that run throughout the body. The heart, gut, and major organs all have large nerve centers that connect with and influence our experience, choices, and actions.
We have two unconscious nervous systems that govern the body, our emotions, and our feelings. One of these systems (the sympathetic) is responsible for the stress response (Fight, flight or freeze). Like the military in a country, it is there to protect us and keep us safe in times of emergency and danger. It is meant to act quickly and then relax.
The second unconscious system is called the parasympathetic. Its job is to maintain the health and well being of the body and mind most of the time. It is like the peace-time governing system of a country. This is the "rest and digest" system. Although a balance between the two systems is always necessary, the parasympathetic system is meant to be in charge most of the time.
The vagal nerve is an immensely important cranial nerve that is part of the parasympathetic system and that connects the lower part of the brain with every major organ in the body. This nerve has tremendous influence on physical health and well being. It is also connected with the "freeze" response.
The experience of safety - which can be expressed as love, gratitude, joy, and other positive emotions - activates the vagal nerve and the parasympathetic system. It says "stand down" to the military stress response of the sympathetic system.
In the same way that a country cannot thrive for very long while in a state of constant war, the body cannot thrive for very long while in a state of constant stress. Physical illnesses of all sorts can be either caused by, or aided by, chronic stress. Mental illnesses are also often connected with stress and/or trauma.
Because our body, mind and physiology respond to safety with increased physical health and experience of well-being, the following practices are helpful, both for the mind and body:
Gratitude. Keep a journal of what you are thankful for. Keep it simple - if you are still breathing, you can be grateful for that. Start there and see what else you can be grateful for. If you feel grateful, then you feel safe. This activates your vagal nerve, deactivates the stress system, and sends healing messages to all parts of your mind and body.
Forgiveness. Forgiveness is simply recognition that you have experienced pain and suffering and that you now want to be free of this suffering. Like a hot coal in your hand that has burned you, you can open your hand and let it go. When you forgive, you acknowledge your own power, take charge of your own destiny, and put yourself back into a place of safety.
Physical exercise. The benefits of exercise on the mind and body are immense. Even 5 minutes of strenuous cardiovascular exercise in the morning (enough to raise your heart rate and make you breathe hard) can be very beneficial for your brain health and mood through the day. It is also beneficial for depression, helps with concentration, and helps to manage negative emotions.
A mindfulness minute. Several times a day, take one minute to stop. Breath deeply into your abdomen. Remind yourself that, good or bad, this too shall change. All is already OK. Cultivate a feeling of gratitude, love, or appreciation. Then go back to what you were doing.
Practice what you want - not what you don't want. Every moment, we choose where our attention goes and with each choice we also choose what we want to practice and increase. If we choose to place attention on the things that are wrong or bad with ourselves, others and the world, then we practice being stressed and unhealthy. If we place our attention on ways in which we, others, and the world are safe or OK, then we practice being OK. We don't have to be blind to the problems - but it is possible to acknowledge what is wrong while still focusing on what is right. This creates more effective action - both in the world and inside the the mind and body.
Anything that helps you - and others - to feel safe will also help you to have more physical health and mental well-being. This is a simple and profound truth of the physiology of the human body. Start with one thing, and then let your experience carry you further.