Most people know about the fight, flight or freeze reactions to fear. But few people realize there is also a social engagement branch of our nervous system – the ventral vagus nerve – that soothes and restores us to a feeling of safety after we’ve had a scare. This positive part of our nervous system prompts us to turn to others for comfort, guiding us toward physical proximity, touch, a soothing voice, and warm facial expressions. These welcoming behaviors from other people don’t just tell us we’re physically safe; they also tell us we are emotionally safe around them.
Emotional safety is not just a feel-good emotion, like whipped cream on a sundae. It arises from the activation of this social-engagement nerve, which allows you to engage with others or enjoy the present moment. Emotional safety makes you relaxed, open, and willing to express yourself, promoting wellbeing instead of tension or vigilance. In this state, worry diminishes and you feel present, grounded, and engaged.
You feel most emotionally safe around friendly people or while immersed in an absorbing activity. You may also feel emotionally safe when walking in nature, playing with your dog, or a few days into your vacation. When your social engagement nerve is turned on, it produces a sensation of emotional safety that brings relaxation and inner contentment.
It’s hard to maintain emotional safety if you are around people whom you find threatening in any way. Some people give us a feeling of unsafety even if they’re not overtly intimidating because we react to their judgment, criticism, or sarcasm as stressors, sensing the possibility of conflict.
Consider how you feel if you are in a situation where friendliness is rare and the people around you are standoffish, critical, easily irritated, or have an unwelcoming facial expression. Your nervous system reads such behavior as an unsafe situation and keeps your fight-flight-or-freeze alarm systems ready to go. This can result in stress-induced symptoms that compromise your health.
Lack of emotional safety in childhood also can have effects on our adult relationships. For children, a blank face is not an emotionally neutral experience; it is a potential danger signal. A child’s nervous system reads an emotionally unengaged parent as possibly rejecting, a terrifying prospect for a child. Instead of being able to reach out and comfortably engage with others in a state of trust and calm, such children might learn to keep their guard up and keep the motor running for a quick escape. Anything less than explicit acceptance from others can feel threatening to our sense of emotional safety.
This is why friendly reassurances and engaged attention are so important in our most intimate relationships. It’s not insecure to want frequent feedback about mattering to our loved ones; it’s a biological urge to move ourselves into a good neurological state of connection. We have all noticed that people who are most happy together are reliably responsive to each other’s feelings and requests. Social engagement signals don’t have to be flamboyant. The slight crinkling of warm eyes, a passing touch, or a barely discernable nod is all it takes to make us feel seen and safe.
Likewise, we may not realize how much we are contributing to other people’s neurological wellbeing when we treat them nicely and give them real smiles. Every time you warmly interact with someone, however briefly, you are literally shifting his or her nervous system into a safe state.
We can strengthen the social engagement branch of our vagal nerve by spending time with safe, emotionally responsive people. Warm interactions, however brief, help tone this nerve and contribute to feelings of well-being. Such reassuring contact helps us think better, feel more optimistic, initiate more emotional connections, and enjoy our social activities.
How do you tell who is a safe person for you? You know by how you feel after you’ve been with them. Do you feel happier, lighter, and more hopeful? Or drained, unsatisfied, and stressed? And how do you feel before you see them? Are you looking forward to it and feeling happy, or dreading it and wishing you could spend your time elsewhere? Your sensations reflect how emotionally safe you feel with that person. Your ventral vagal nerve can tell who lowers your energy or affects your mood.
If you make a point to fill your life with people who readily engage with you, you not only will feel emotionally safe, you will be lowering your stress too. Time spent in soothing connection is time not spent in fear or stress. Once you’ve realized how stressful it is not to be emotionally responded to, you will be motivated to find more nourishing relationships. Then you can trust your feeling of emotional safety to point you in the right direction.