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How the body gets the message it’s safe (and why it’s important it does)

Feeling safe—physically and emotionally—is vital to our health. If we don’t feel safe, knowingly or unknowingly, it can result in the stress response being switched on more often than it is off. And this can take an immense toll on our inner health, our sleep, as well as what reflects on the outside.

In the middle of your brain sits the hypothalamus, the commanding conductor of your body’s endocrine system which is the assortment of glands that make hormones throughout your body. Among other important tasks, it asks 24/7: ‘Am I safe?’ It makes that assessment via two predominant fields: the physical and the emotional. It monitors every heartbeat, breath and aspect of our internal landscape, reporting back on our sensory experiences, energy reserves and whether stress hormones are present. Based on the response it receives (a distinct ‘yes’ or ‘no’; there is no grey area with ‘safety’ in the body), the hypothalamus then communicates to the pituitary gland—I call her the ‘mother gland’—whether you are indeed safe or not. She then sends out her signals based on whether she received information about your safety or a lack thereof.

That means that your adrenal glands (where you make stress hormones, some sex hormones, as well as blood pressure- and fluid-regulating hormones, just to name a few), thyroid, ovaries, and parts of your digestive system, then make their hormones to suit your ‘conditions’, i.e. whether you are safe or not.

So let’s back up the bus and work out how your body gets the message that you are safe or not.

On a physical level

When the hypothalamus enquires, “Am I safe?” it turns to the various components of your nervous system, including those involved in fear and emotions, for guidance. Adrenaline, a messenger that permeates every cell, sends a clear message to the hypothalamus—your life is in jeopardy. It matters little whether this adrenaline surge is triggered by an overwhelming to-do list, excessive caffeine consumption, or a genuine life-threatening situation (which, thankfully, is relatively rare). Another circumstance that can erroneously signal danger to the hypothalamus is a highly restrictive diet accompanied by insufficient food intake and excessive exercise. Remarkably, your body fails to differentiate between eating too little due to a scarcity of food and consciously opting to restrict your diet.

As soon as the hypothalamus receives this distressing “I’m not safe” information—a response faster than conscious thought—it instantaneously alerts the pituitary gland. In turn, the pituitary gland orchestrates a hormonal cascade, communicating the “no” verdict to other endocrine glands.

Emotionally

Every human has a set of rules that they don’t know about unless they’ve gone looking for what has to happen for them to feel a certain way—including to feel safe. When I’ve done this exercise with clients, when I ask them what has to happen for them to feel safe, the responses often cover a broad range of different areas of life. For example, for some people the first life department they reference when asked this question is about physical safety. They’ll say they feel safe as long as the doors and windows are locked.

Others start talking to me about their finances—they feel like they need a certain amount of money in the bank or invested to feel safe, so they know that their future is taken care of in this way. Other people go straight to explaining how their relationships must be, particularly their intimate relationship or those with their inner circle.

They might say that they don’t feel safe if they are on the receiving end of a raised voice on a regular basis. Other people tell me what has to be happening for their children if they are to feel safe. My point is, what is required for people to feel safe on an emotional level is highly varied. Yet if you have never explored this, chances are you live too many moments of too many days where the hypothalamus receives the message ‘no’ when it enquires if you are safe, due to your subconscious safety ‘rules’ not being met. It is a worthwhile exercise to do.

Take a moment to reflect on the frequency with which your body endures heightened adrenaline levels due to caffeine consumption, your perception of constant pressure and urgency along with your ‘rules’ for what you need in order to feel safe. Contemplate the implications of this on your endocrine system—how frequently it receives the overwhelming message that safety eludes you. This complex interplay of this aspect of our endocrine system often bewilders individuals who sense their health deteriorating and embark on a quest for answers. The symptoms they experience—suboptimal functioning of various glands, not necessarily indicative of disease—leave them uncertain about whether to focus on their adrenals, thyroid, or reproductive system. Sometimes addressing this message that there is a perceived lack of safety is the key.

Recently, an article was published that caught my eye. The title read: “Organic meat production just as bad for climate, study finds”. The analysis

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