The Illusion of Safe Spaces: Social Trauma, Safety & What We Can Do

Schools have done a great job of recognizing the need for trauma-informed care and building our students’ social emotional skills this year. This discussion explores what we have learned about social trauma and the science of safety as it relates to connection and relationships. We first propose a definition of social trauma and next explore a more complex view of safety. We then offer a different approach to supporting families by tapping into our own neuro-wisdom that we can use to engage with colleagues, students and family members. We invite educators to consider practicing social emotional skills in ways that honor us not only in our professional roles, but in every facet of our lives, while we navigate our own traumatic experiences.

Too often, the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum is seen as a separate piece of instruction, designed for students, and divorced from the rest of the school day. Lately, educators have been pushing for SEL for adults, and this is critical—not just for our own benefit, but for our relationships with our students, our students’ caregivers, colleagues, and our own families.

The impact of the pandemic, heightened attention to racial injustice, and accompanying violence has created a legacy of social trauma. In the 2020 Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL) SEL Roadmap: Actions for a Successful Second Semester notes that “many students and adults may have experienced extraordinary stress and trauma” and “attention to students’ social, emotional and academic development is particularly important now”. Complicating matters is that the impact of our individual, family and collective social traumas and histories are often operating outside of our conscious awareness. We recognize the impact that social trauma has had on us. We approach healing as justice and use our clinical and teaching expertise to support educators and academic institutions apply neuroscience, somatics and education to heal, repair disconnects, build relationships that have been harmed by social trauma.

We present a definition of social trauma as an “experience, series of experiences, consequences, and/or impacts from social conditions that break or betray our inherent need for safety, belonging, and dignity” (Hicks, 2019). We understand the individual impact of trauma as “what happens inside of us” as a result of what happens to us (Maté, 2017). One of the major consequences of trauma to relationships is the “chronic disruption of connectedness” (Porges, 2014) that produces a deleterious impact on individual and collective safety. Safety is intrinsic to our being human, and through a trauma lens we explore a more expansive, nuanced understanding.

Our own experiences tell us that declaring spaces safe is not only misguided, it is impossible for us to do. A deeper understanding of embodied safety reveals that in proclaiming spaces safe we often reproduce the very injustices we seek to end. From a justice perspective, safety includes physical and material safety. This means having nourishing food, clean water and air, health care, and freedom from physical violence. Psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational safety are also included in how we understand safety. For example, this means having opportunities to act on one’s behalf and being in connection with people fundamentally interested in the wellbeing of others. Finally, safety is an embodied experience–a feeling or state individually and subjectively determined–by which one is able to be secure and vulnerable. Using a polyvagal theory approach, we propose that the autonomic nervous system (ANS)–the neuro-platform from which life is experienced–has much wisdom to offer. The ANS both creates and witnesses our lived experiences from which we author stories that keep us stuck.

Understanding Safety and Connection Through the ANS

As we continue to maneuver pandemic life that seems never ending, many of us are finding ourselves in situations where experiences of overwhelm, frustration, shut down, or angst are palpable…sometimes explosive. We’re all familiar with that tingling sensation in the pit of our stomachs when we think about having that important talk we’ve been avoiding, or the tightness in our throats when we know we need to say something that’s going to make people uncomfortable…and the feeling of upset when we don’t. All these sensations are gifts of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) that functions as a 24/7 personal surveillance system that monitors inside the body, in the outside environment, and between relationships. While the focus of our work is on the emotional aspects, the ANS is also responsible for many automatic functions like heart beat, digestion and body temperature, which have direct impact on our wellbeing. The ANS is the great equalizer because we each have one, although it is shaped by one’s experiences. Our ANS helps us navigate our days by sending and receiving cues of safety and danger in service of our wellbeing. The challenge for us is that all these cues are being sent and received without our explicit awareness. There are two experiences of the ANS: longing for connection and positioning for protection.

Learning becomes nearly impossible while the nervous system is defending for safety. Safety in the context of trauma is the perception of the absence of physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, relational danger and harm and the perception of the presence of experiences of psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational safety. In other words, safety is an embodied, “both/and” experience which means the nervous system needs the active appearance and experience of cues of safety (Porges, 2015a). These cues are read by individuals, not determined by decision or declaration from others. Developing safety is a bottom up, inside out process built on shared experiences of safety and co-regulation with others.

Creating Shared Experiences of Safety

With co-regulation as the pinnacle of healthy relational living, healing can be a long-term process that first requires becoming acquainted with the ANS. We begin learning to identify major state shifts and how we are impacted by them. It means developing the ability to explore and identify nervous system patterns and how those patterns determine our reactions. Healing means building resilience for efficiently reading and responding to the unknown and unanticipated challenges of life.

Safety and Advancing Justice. What Can We Do?

Justice is a lifelong endeavor that requires commitment and practice. Here is a reflective activity that you (as a teacher, leader, caretaker, or student) can do right now to explore safety in your own life. Using our notion of safety, interrogate your own personal and professional experiences. Reflect both on personal and professional levels. Journal and take notes. Every day for the next few weeks, observe how you are navigating safety in your life and relationships.

Notice. Stop for a moment to take in your internal and external environments through your five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and sound. Then move to your body…what do you sense inside your body? Feel what is going on inside your skin. Notice your breathing, your heart rate. Are you tired, hungry, or irritated? Now move to your surroundings. See the people and things around you. Listen to the words and sounds. Smell the air. Feel the temperature of the room you are in.

Action. What are the signs of safety that you notice? Are there enough cues of physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational safety for you to ready you to be in connection and to be vulnerable or do the cues of danger keep you positioned for protection? What are the triggers that come up? Keep in mind this could even be fatigue, hunger, the way someone sounds, a memory.

Reflection. Consider what you need to feel safe. Consider that your colleagues, students and families will likely need something different. Since safety is an individual embodied experience, can you declare your home, classroom or meeting space safe?

Seeing the Possibilities of Safety

Returning to our notion of safety, imagine if we were to each develop the ability to recognize the protective mechanisms of our ANS and build resilience to return to nervous system safety, we could transform our relationships with one another. We could increase engagement with colleagues, students and families to transform family-school relationships from one-way communication pathways to true partnership—ones in which we regularly practice healing in connection resulting in better relationships at work and at home.

Supporting safety as we see it, is an investment in which we each have risk and reward. The major return on an investment is relational connection, more choice, increased health, wellness and resilience. To reap the returns means we must invest our commitment, time, and practices to develop a nuanced and embodied sense of safety.

2021 © Cherie Bridges Patrick, PhD & Lindsay Lyons, PhD

CASEL Guide to Schoolwide Social Emotional Learning. (2020).
Dana, D. (2020). Polyvagal exercises for safety and connection. W.W. Norton & Co.
Jones, S. Bailey, R., Brush, K. & Khan, J. (2018) Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation (2018). Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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