Why Don’t PTSD Survivors feel Safe? Re-establishing Safety


© Dr. Amy Menna & Gift From Within

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can create a confusing world for a survivor of trauma. It is a phenomenon that capitalizes on the feelings of safety for those experiencing it. When something traumatic happens, it can replace feelings of safety in this world with a sense of fear and anxiety. At times, a trauma event can do this in a single moment such as a car accident or assault. Other times, the world goes from safe to unsafe over the course of time such as in the case of childhood abuse or domestic violence.

Safety is defined as the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss. This definition of safety is relative to a physical sense. It relates to the notion that the absence of risk of physical harm to the individual being creates safety. However, when dealing with PTSD, the definition of safety takes on a very different meaning. When it comes to PTSD, the idea of safety deals with the notion of feeling safe. A better definition for PTSD would be the following;

Safety (as it relates to PTSD): The feeling of being safe; freedom from the fear of the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.

PTSD and the Feeling of Safety

When something traumatic happens, it changes the story of your world. Prior to a traumatic event happening, a general premise for one?s life is that he or she is generally safe. The individual is free from a sense that something bad is going to happen at any moment as experience has proven that not to be the case. However, when something traumatic happens, it changes the story line to say that something bad could happen and we are generally not free from harm. In this instance, the thought that we are generally safe is replaced with a sense of fear of what is next.

An example of this may be someone who is in a car accident. Everyday, we drive different places without a thought of the other cars around us. Often we get to places without even being aware of the routes we take as they are so routine. We make turns, have cars stop in front of us, and brake often without thought. We feel so confident that we will get to our destination safely that our thoughts are about many things other than driving. However, when someone has been involved in an accident, they may become hypervigilent to driving. The thought that he or she will arrive safely at their destination has been replaced with the idea that an accident can occur. Therefore, if someone is coming up behind this individual at a stoplight, his or her heart rate may go up and one may have a thought that he or she will be rear ended. Driving alone may be a cause for anxiety as he or she no longer has that feeling of safety that allows them to think of other things.

Flashbacks and the Feeling of Safety

A flashback comes in the form of thoughts, feelings, or images when we are reminded of the trauma. They can come up when an individual least expects it. Using the example of the car accident, if an individual was hit by a red car, feelings of anxiety may come up when he or she sees a red car, even if it is not a similar make or model. This anxiety comes up because the red car caused the individual to again not feel safe.

Flashbacks can also come in the form of thoughts. When one feels unsafe, he or she can have more anxious thoughts. These may not be as obvious as ?”I am not feeling safe.”? Unsafe thoughts may be more in the form of insecurities. Perhaps an individual is in a relationship and feels his or her partner is suddenly lying or doing something that is out of character.

Anxiety stemming from feeling unsafe can come in many forms. It may also come in the form of feelings. One feeling that may come up is anger. This type of anger often needs something to be directed towards. Again, there may not be the awareness that it is tied into not feeling safe. An individual may not feel safe and suddenly be extremely angry about something unrelated to the trauma such as something at work or home. They may be driving and road rage may occur.

Flashbacks in the form of images may be easier to tie into the trauma. However, the may also come in the form of dreams or trouble sleeping. This is because the body does not feel safe enough to shut itself down to sleep. Flashbacks may also come in the form of visions of things associated with the trauma either directly or indirectly. In the case of a car accident, it may be of the accident itself or perhaps something the individual saw prior to the accident such as a billboard.

Identifying Feelings of Being Unsafe

One of the most important things when experiencing PTSD is connecting feelings of safety with one?s current symptoms. In doing so, he or she can work on re-establishing safety. If one does not connect the feelings or thoughts to safety, one may work to resolve the surface issue and not get to the core. For instance if an individual is feeling unsafe and anger comes up which comes out at work, he or she may be prone to try and fix the situation at work. This does not fix the problem of why they were feeling unsafe.

Re-establishing Safety

Re-establishing safety is an individual process for everyone. To do so, one must identify what makes him or her feel safe. For some, it may be a certain place while others it may be certain people. Other individuals find more safety in solitary measures such as meditation or journaling. It is helpful to write down what makes you feel most safe and create a plan for yourself for when anxiety comes up.

The first part of any safety plan is to identify some triggers. For instance, perhaps loud voices or dark places make an individual feel unsafe. Through identifying the triggers, one can start to avoid these or notice when they are around.

The next part is to identify what feelings come up when feeling unsafe. Finding out one’s ?”flavor”? of feelings of unsafety is half the battle. One individual may have more insecure thoughts whereas another individual may become angry. Through identifying what he or she is like when unsafe, one can start the next part of the plan which is to re-establish safety.

The final part of the plan is to write down what things one can do to re-establish safety. Perhaps there is a person to call, a place to go, a mantra to say, or something to listen to. There are many ways to re-establish safety and find out what soothes you, and work to make this world a place that feels safer.

A New Way of Living

PTSD can be difficult to manage. However, if one is able to manage feelings of safety, it can be dealt with and conquered. It is something that can be resolved and there is support out there. You are not alone. Get support, work on safety, find out what sooths you, and work to make this world a place that feels safer. It is something that takes practice but it will pay off.

Amy Menna has a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and Certified Addictions Professional. She is in private practice. She is available by email at amymenna@aol.com.