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Teaching the Body to Feel Safe

by Kalia KelmensonFebruary 21, 2017
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Photo Credit: borgogniels/Thinkstock

These days we are inundated with triggers that activate our stress response—heart-wrenching stories from across the globe, the country, or within our own families that can’t seem to find peace. We become activated into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. In those moments, telling ourselves to calm down isn’t enough. We have to prove to our nervous system that it is safe to relax.

Josh Korda, dharma teacher at Dharma Punx NYC, was recently at Lumeria Maui, a decidedly safe venue, offering ways to feel safe in a stressful world. Korda offered an intriguing blend of psychoanalytic theory combined with Buddhist dharma on the topic of creating a sense of safety.

He describes the nervous system as being a “bottom up” system that starts in the primal part of our brain. Because of this tendency, according to Korda,  “you can’t just tell yourself that you are safe; you have to prove it.”

Discovering this sense of safety starts with a biological component and moves into a mental one:

  • The breath as a tool. Taking deep breaths have long been known as a way to calm down. Korda breaks the practice down into a more specific framework. When an inhale is half as long as an exhale, he tells us that our vagus nerve is activated, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to relax.
  • Speaking to your mind with your body. A stressed body has signs: the back of neck bristles, shoulders get tight, facial muscles contract, and the belly becomes a constricted knot. With focus, we can begin to unwind this tense response. We are guided to soften the back of neck, to drop the shoulders, to release the muscles of the face, and, using the breath again, to soften the belly. This relaxing and softening of specific body parts sends signals to brain that all is well.
  • Find further proof. Based on Barbara Fredrickson’s theory of broaden and build, which speaks to the resilience-building capacity of positive emotions, we are then guided into noticing the ways we are safe in our surroundings:
    • Notice what is happening all around you. Are there birds singing? Are there the normal sounds of traffic or people talking? These are signs that chaos is not imminent.
    • Becoming aware of abundance is another way of knowing you are safe. Maybe you have enough food in your kitchen to make dinner. It could be that you have clothes that keep you warm. Abundance can be the simple things that surround you all day long.
    • Community is a crucial sign of safety. In many ways, our survival depends on our connection to others. Finding ways to meet up with those you feel close to lets you relax. One day that may mean calling someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. On another day, it could be meeting up with a friend for tea. It could also mean joining a group that shares a common interest. The important part here is fostering that sense of community and connection.

Our capacity for handling the amount of stress we are confronted with on a daily basis may not yet be fully up to the task. In order to be able to withstand the onslaught of information, we need to develop our resilience, and calm ourselves down when we need to. We are then in a much better position to take a strong stance for our beliefs, and to have a chance to sustain ourselves through the very real challenges facing us.


Kalia Kelmenson

Kalia Kelmenson founded Maui Mind and Body to support women's health. She is the creator of Core Strength Balance and Mind Body Booty Camp and enjoys moonlighting as the reviews editor at Spirituality & Health. Kalia explores the fascinating intersection of fitness and mind-body health. Find inspiration for your movement practice from research and stories that are emerging from this intriguing field.


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