When we look back across the years the one word that will probably be one of the most used words to illustrate would be “Safe”. Like Nemo, safely tucked in his anemone, we have to move with the current of change all around us to reduce the friction of bumping into obstacles or wear ourselves out with the fatigue of constantly swimming upstream and fighting the current of change that’s ultimately much bigger than any of us here.  We have to move with the currents of change around us to feel safe in uncertainty

A synonym for safety is control

“Stay safe”.  Intended to make people feel better it has the opposite effect on me.  The horrible words follow me like an echo everywhere I go reminding me of the pandemic.  It exaggerates the tightness in my stomach when I walk down the street and see every second shop closed down. I can’t help but feel the pain of all these shop owners who’ve lost everything in the blink of an eye.  I can’t help but think about the irony of the words “Stay safe” and why it doesn’t make me feel safe hearing it.  The invisible fear that floats around in the air and kills random people.  It is worse than any war as there’s no retaliation against an invisible half-dead zombie-like virus.

I realize that feeling safe in uncertainty is not a realistic expectation to set right now.  Asking people to feel safe when there’s an invisible killer all around is like asking someone to close their eyes and walk across a busy intersection.

Keep Calm

It’s not a time to feel safe as such.  Keeping calm would have been a more apt line to use.  Your feeling of safety is directly related to the amount of control you have over your environment.  When you are in full control there is nothing to fear and you feel safe and powerful.  When, however, unexpected things happen around you it’s not so easy to feel safe in uncertainty.  The truth is that right now, no one is really in control.

 “Your feeling of safety is directly related to the amount of control you have over your environment.”

I haven’t met anyone in my life who doesn’t desire to be in control.  Some people are just naturally more comfortable with chaos than others and need less control to feel safe in uncertainty.  However, ultimately, we all desire the safety of prediction.  Unpredictability shakes us out of our comfort zone and it’s simply not comfortable.

Surrendering control

The bad news is that no matter how hard you try, you will never be in control. That’s not how life works.  Not even the most powerful person on this earth is in control.  It takes but one tsunami to prove exactly how powerless we are. Your plans are as valuable as the paper they’re written on. Sticking to previous plans can cause much more harm than good, as so many shop owners catering for the tourist market in Cape Town have already realized. It’s not a time to stick your head in the sand and hope when you surface again everything is going to just be a bad memory.

The good news is that the only thing you need to control is the thoughts in your mind.  You don’t have to control your environment or the people in your environment, rather, you have to control only your thoughts and emotions.

According to science, the brain is divided into two different functional modes.  One allows us to analytically observe and logically think, and the other allows us to connect socially with the people around us.  When we’re in fear our first need is for social connection and validation and we, as a result, look at others for answers on the more logical things to get us out of our predicament.  So it’s crucial to master your fear if you want to remain safe, or in control of your own life.

Here are three practical ways to feel safe in uncertainty.

3 Ways to practice feeling safe in uncertainty

1. Focus wheel

A great way to get better at anything is through daily practice.  Emotions are no different.

Each morning I spend at least 3 minutes writing a focus wheel. Less than 3 minutes will not have enough momentum, more is a bonus. In the middle of a paper, I write an affirmation based on how I want to feel and draw a small circle around it, forming the centre of a target on the page.    “I am safe” or “It is safe to be successful” or something similar is written in the centre and serves as my focus.

Starting in this centre I then write in concentric circle memories of previous times I felt this way until the page is full.  You can just write this affirmation on a page until it’s full, however, writing in circles takes extra focus and for me, it is much easier to stay focused with this approach.

As you write the emotion of safety starts growing stronger and stronger.  Then, however, an emotion where you felt unsafe might surface as an intruder to your happy thoughts.  It’s important not to ignore this feeling but rather use it as a portal to see what stops you from feeling safe in uncertainty, as communicated by this message.

Your Emotional State

As I’ve learned and am constantly learning more about emotions I’ve realized there’s no pure good emotional state.  You never feel 100% safe or 100%, love.  Like the yin-yang symbol, each positive emotion has a shadow side.  You can’t experience one without the other. Ignoring the shadow just makes it bigger.

The goal is to shed light on the shadow rather than avoid it in a repetitive cycle. to move more and more to the pure feeling state by removing little by little the shadows around it.  By finding the hidden message in the negative emotion the shadow dissolves and it becomes easier and easier to stay in the positive state.

Repeat daily for best results.

2. Play My Worst Nightmare

By far scarier is the unknown, the unspoken, the invisible.  The moment you give something a name the power it has over you subsides and the fear dissolves just a little.  Many people, for example, dread going to the doctor because they’re scared they’ll be diagnosed with cancer. Yet, when they eventually go and get a diagnosis, they feel relief, not dread, even when they do have cancer.   When you know the devil you’re dealing with you can come up with strategies and practical action plans.  Not knowing leaves you with doubt and doubt is always worse than knowing.

My Worst Nightmare is a game intended to create a safe space where everyone can express their fears without judgment.  In this game, each person gets the opportunity to voice an exaggerated version of their worst nightmare.  Find someone you trust and can be vulnerable with, or play it with your entire team, giving each person a chance to share what they fear the worst case might be.  Try to add something incredible or outlandish to inject some laughter as it might become a dark vortex of doom when it’s too realistic or real.  But even if this is the case it is an improvement on not speaking about it at all.  At least now you know what you’re dealing with and that means you’re able to move into a more desirable direction.  Not giving it a name makes it an invisible enemy.

3.  Find the facts

Once you’ve given your fear a name by speaking it out loud, you can take action.  Knowledge is power.  When you understand how something works, you can work with it.  In the Dark Ages, we burnt witches at the stake because they understood herbs and could miraculously cure illnesses which seemed like magic.  But it’s only magic when you don’t understand it.

The best antidote to fear is to educate yourself.  Find out as much as you can about the subject and make sure you get as many diverse opinions as possible. Learn about the nature of viruses and the benefits and disadvantages of vaccines.  Study ways to boost your immune system and read about opinions about the virus without judging anyone as wrong.

There is no such thing as an absolute truth, but the more perspectives you add to your version of truth, the higher the chance that you’ll have a more complete picture of the truth.

When you increase your knowledge of what you’re afraid of, you have a better chance to take action that will move you in a better-feeling direction.

Scientifically you can’t feel and think at the same time, just like you can’t observe and be observed at the same time.  When your attention is on the emotion of feeling unsafe, you might drop into fear.  When, however, you focus on the facts, you take your attention elsewhere and the more you can view the fear from a distance, the easier it will be to put things into perspective.

Keep calm and breathe

If you’ve ever scuba-dived in turbulent waters you’ll know how hard it can be to stay afloat and control your buoyancy.  It’s a constant dance with the currents. Use your breath to expand and contract your lungs to stay in one place.  Do this regardless of the currents moving around you.  A fish stays safe by going with the current, not against it. In the art of Aikido, a martial art, the same principle applies.  It is seen as a waste to block the energy coming from your opponent in an attack and this force is rather used to your advantage rather than trying to block it.  We’re not in control right now, but it’s up to us what we do with these forces being changed beyond our control.

Practice makes better.  Keep practising the art of mindfulness and healthy living.  Voice your fears and take action.  It doesn’t take a big change to have a big impact.  A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Understanding the Neuroscience of Safety

The concept of “how to feel safe” in the face of uncertainty is deeply rooted in our brain’s functioning and evolutionary biology. The human brain has evolved to respond to uncertainty and potential threats. It does this by using a complex system of neural pathways and neurotransmitters. Key brain structures involved in this process include the amygdala, responsible for emotional processing. Additionally, it includes the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for decision-making and moderating social behaviour.

Role of Neurotransmitters in Feeling Safe

Neurotransmitters play a significant role in how we perceive safety and handle uncertainty. Serotonin and oxytocin, for example, are associated with feelings of well-being and security. Serotonin helps regulate mood, while oxytocin is often called the “love hormone” and is linked to trust and social bonding. By understanding the role of these neurotransmitters, we can adopt strategies such as social interaction and mindfulness practices to naturally boost their levels, thus enhancing our sense of safety.

Strategies for Cultivating Safety in Uncertainty

To optimize the feeling of safety in uncertainty, it’s important to engage in activities that activate the brain’s reward system and increase the production of ‘feel-good’ hormones. This can include physical exercise, which boosts endorphin levels, or engaging in social activities that increase oxytocin. Mindfulness and meditation practices can also be effective, as they help in reducing the activity of the amygdala and lowering stress and anxiety levels.

The Interplay of Brain Structures

The neuroscience behind “How to feel safe” is a complex interplay of brain structures, neurotransmitters, and evolutionary biology. By understanding these mechanisms, we can adopt practical strategies to increase our sense of safety, even in the face of life’s uncertainties. This involves not just individual activities but also fostering a supportive social environment that can contribute to our overall sense of well-being and security.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.