How Simply 'Feeling Safe' Can Make Us Healthier And More Productive A behavioral neuroscientist explains how you can consciously create a feeling of safety, and thrive within it.
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Note: What follows is a modified excerpt from the book Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us, by behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges, Ph.D. (who first proposed the Polyvagal Theory) and Seth Porges (an Entrepreneur contributor and the filmmaker behind Class Action Park on Max).
How safe do you feel?
The answer to that question is crucial to your physical and mental health and happiness.
This is the simple summary of a new model for the autonomic nervous system that we call the Polyvagal Theory, and it's important for entrepreneurs — and everyone — to be mindful of. Here's why.
When we feel safe (notice we say "feel" safe, and not that we actually are safe—an important distinction), our nervous systems and entire bodies undergo a massive physiological shift that primes us to be healthier, happier, and smarter; to be better learners and problem solvers; to have more fun; to heal faster; and generally to feel more alive.
(Pretty neat, right?)
As you may have figured out, key to all this is the vagus nerve. It's why we call it the Polyvagal theory: "Poly" means multiple, and "vagal" means, well, vagus.
If you opened up an anatomy textbook, you'd see that the vagus is a cranial nerve. That is, it is one of precisely 12 special nerves that originate in the brainstem and offer direct lines between the brainstem and key parts of our body.
What makes the vagus special is that, unlike the other cranial nerves, it doesn't have just one primary destination in the body. As an example, the optic nerve (which is responsible for eyesight) runs from the brainstem to the eyes—and pretty much nowhere else.
Instead, the vagus winds its way down from the brainstem and weaves through almost the entire body, all the way down to the gut. Because this wandering nerve (literally: The name "vagus" comes from the Latin word for "wandering," similar to the word "vagabond") touches so much of our body and so many of our organs, the vagus serves as a sort of shared connection that allows our numerous bodily systems and organs to communicate with one another and act in concert.
If the body is a symphony, full of discrete systems and sections charged with fulfilling specific functions, then the vagus is the conductor — the shared link that allows the body to work together as a cohesive unit.
It is through the vagus that feelings of safety and threat bounce up and down through our entire bodies, changing our emotions and the ways we feel — as well as how our bodies, organs, and senses operate on a physical level.
This can significantly impact us at work, as we pursue things like productivity, creativity, and a pleasant office environment.
Here's how — and how you can more consciously create a feeling of safety, and thrive within it.
The Path to Feeling Safe
We've all been there before. Maybe we're on vacation, relaxing by the pool. More likely, we're sitting at home. Perhaps eating dinner with our family, lounging in front of a movie, or doing whatever it is we do to wind down before bed.
Like most days, it was probably a stressful one. There was traffic, a nasty deadline or three, a pushy boss. Maybe a few coworkers were out sick, and you had to carry extra weight to make up for it. Maybe you spent nine hours on your feet—or just as much time planted in a chair, hunched over the bright light of a computer screen.
And just as you feel the stress of the day finally melting away for some semblance of peace, it happens.
Your phone vibrates.
Maybe it will be your boss asking you to burn the midnight oil with no notice. Or maybe it will be just a random piece of spam email that you can easily ignore. Either way, past experiences have conditioned you to expect the worst.
Pavlov's dog slobbered at the sound of a bell. For millions of us, our hearts race at the feeling of a vibration in our pocket.
And before you can even glance at your phone, you already feel that wave of anxiety and dread wash over you. Your body stiffens. Your breath quickens. Your stomach tightens.
And you're reminded, once again, that you can never really turn off from work.
Today, employees are often expected to be either always working or always available for work on short notice. For white-collar workers, this often takes the form of the dreaded after-hours email. For those in the retail or service industries, it can be even worse: There's often an expectation that they will be available to work any shift at any time—often without any notice.
If you don't work in that world, you might be surprised by the reality of many hourly employees. Despite only allowing employees to work just enough hours that they are still labeled as part-time (and thus not eligible for benefits such as health care), these employees are often still expected to block out wide swaths of hours and even days for which they may be called in with little or no notice.
When it comes to making plans over the weekend—or even for supper—well, you can just forget about it.
From a lifestyle perspective, this can be catastrophic. If you don't know when you're going to have to show up at work, you can never settle into a routine, or plan around simple necessities such as scheduling childcare or preparing meals. You also can't supplement your technically "part-time" income with another job, since you're always on call, despite not being paid for that time.
This existence is a stressful, and even traumatizing, one. Just like the email from the boss, that call to come into work can come at any time without notice. And when it does, our bodies feel it.
Even when that call doesn't come in, the prospect can hang over our heads like a cloud, preventing us from fully disconnecting or enjoying our supposed time off from work. The constant stress is real and made only worse by financial insecurity. (Needless to say, the jobs that operate like this tend to be low-wage ones.) Put together, the result can be ruinous.
We humans—like other mammals—rely on a semblance of routine to know when we can shut down and recuperate. When we can settle into the healing state of homeostasis. In general, our nervous systems interpret predictability as safe, and the random or unpredictable as potential threats.
Our brains search for patterns that allow us to assess threats and safety, so that we know when to rev up as needed for survival, and when to wind down again to heal. If you want to cause a rat in an experiment to go crazy (or possibly drop dead), all you need to do is make everything random in terms of when and why things happen. When events—especially punishing or attention-sapping ones—occur at random intervals, our brains quickly learn that we always need to stay on high alert, and our bodies can never truly shut down or relax.
The sympathetic fight-or-flight state evolved to help us evade danger for short bursts. When stress, anxiety, and the need to be alert become an always-on way of life, bad things happen to our bodies and brains. Our health suffers. We become quick to anger and stuck in states of aggression and defense. We lose the ability to access the parts of our brain required for free and creative thinking, as well as emotional regulation. We become emotional and reactive, and stop feeling like ourselves.
For employers, the logic of such setups makes sense from a dollars-and-cents perspective: They get the always-on availability of a full-time or salaried employee, without having to pay for health care or other benefits.
But for the employees, the stress of a low-wage existence is only exacerbated by the inability to plan a routine—or to fully rest and recuperate.
Just about everybody needs to work, but our health demands that we counter that time of activation and alertness with true relaxation. Our bodies crave homeostasis for at least a few hours every day, and require these moments to be able to handle stress and decompress from it without allowing it to fully traumatize us or burn us out.
We don't necessarily need to experience safety around the clock, but we do need a few hours every day with trusted co-regulators to allow our nervous system to move out of a state of threat in order to support our homeostatic functions, which are both biological and psychological.
As long as our brains know that we need to be on the lookout for something—be it a saber-toothed tiger or a call from our boss—we can never truly turn off and enter the autonomic state for healing. We can never truly attain the feeling of homeostasis that our bodies crave, which allows us to handle bursts of stress without becoming overwhelmed or traumatized.
Of course, many of us already know how bad all this is. We know it because we've lived it, and felt it in our bodies. But as a society, we're told to work through the pain. To keep hustling. That our feelings are frivolous and don't matter.
So for many of us, the Polyvagal Theory doesn't tell us anything we don't already know here. We get that never being able to turn off from work is stressful and unhealthy. We get that we're increasingly asked to run on empty and that the side effects of this permeate almost every aspect of our well-being and ability to enjoy life.
What the Polyvagal Theory does instead is give us permission to listen to our bodies, and realize that living a life outside the shadow of pervasive stress and anxiety isn't a frivolous perk—but a true biological necessity.
The Polyvagal Theory tells us that this matters.
In many ways, the modern workplace seems almost scientifically engineered to make us feel unsafe.
The issues here can be approached from either an empathetic and humane perspective (an employee who feels safe will be happier and healthier!) or a pragmatic and cynical one (an employee who feels safe will do better work!).
The Polyvagal Theory posits that, in so many scenarios, making others feel safe benefits us as well.
This is true on a biological level, as friendly and safe behaviors bounce among people and back at us. But it's also true in ways that are easier to quantify, and perhaps more convincing for a society or industry that is largely driven by numbers and data.
If we need to be a bit cynical and focus on the bottom line to make our argument, we'll posit that a worker who feels safe is likely to be more creative, productive, and stick around longer. The modern workplace's tendency to be dismissive of this fact is shortsighted and self-defeating. It is a lose-lose for both employers and employees.
They're Watching Us
If you've called a customer service line in the past few years, the chances are pretty decent that you've been prompted to stay on the line for a quick survey.
You know the deal. A robotic voice asks you something like, "On a scale of one to five, with five being the highest, how satisfied are you with the customer service representative you just spoke to?"
For most of us, the ranking might be a mere afterthought—and something we're unlikely to engage with unless we're in a particularly good or (as is more often the case) particularly bad mood.
But to the employee on the other end of the phone, that rating may very well decide their entire professional fate. We've effectively turned frontline employees into American Idol contestants. The number of people who answer that question—and how they vote—often determines whether somebody gets fired or promoted.
The survey becomes a sword of Damocles hanging over the employee's head. And no matter how kind and professional an employee is (never an easy task if the worker themself is having a bad day, as we all do at times), a certain number of callers will still dial in a low rating. And even if the numbers are good today, there's no telling how they'll play out tomorrow. The threat of falling behind never truly goes away.
The modern workplace is obsessed with numbers and metrics aimed at eking every iota of productivity and compliance out of us. In the white-collar world, this often takes the form of spreadsheet-driven performance reviews. We are ranked and pitted against one another. Our bosses and coworkers might be kind, but the charts and algorithms are often cruel.
Even if you excel in this world of Excel—even if your numbers are the best—the pressure takes its toll. We're just as good as our latest numbers. This extends to high-level corporate executives, who are judged by quarterly earnings and a fluctuating stock price.
This feeling of pervasive insecurity funnels through the same neural pathways that were devised for quick escapes from predators. We feel stressed and anxious—even when we're not at work. Those feelings don't shut off just because we go home for the night.
And these days, we aren't just constantly measuring employees— we're also keeping tabs on their every move. Whether it's the monitoring of emails or the tracking of truck drivers with GPS, many people spend their workdays feeling like they are being watched at all times.
But this feeling of having eyes over our shoulders is an alarming one. On a primal level, it triggers our survival instincts. When we know we are being watched, we are instinctively activated into a state of alertness and defense.
This isn't to say that employers shouldn't monitor employees' performance or keep an eye on them. But they should know that micromanaging these metrics comes with a real price. Being on guard at all times takes its toll on us and prevents us from accessing the creative and productivity-boosting powers of our safety system.
We all need an opportunity to disengage and heal. These days, many of us are never afforded that necessity. And if you work in a profession that values creativity or problem-solving, the feeling of constantly being monitored makes it difficult to access the cranial functions that support those behaviors. On paper, these measures may seem like effective ways to get employees to work harder. But in reality, they may cause workers' performance, morale, and ability to handle the stresses of work and daily life to diminish.
Of course, employers often come to this approach from a place of fear. Fear that affording workers any sort of flexibility in their lives will cause them to quit. Fear that, if employees are free of constant monitoring and measuring, they will slack off. Fear that pay- ing a decent wage will give employees freedom and mobility and that they won't do a job that nobody else wants to do.
As a result, many low-wage industries are structured around the anticipation of high turnover. It is expected that an employee will burn out or become frustrated or simply have enough and leave. But no worries if they do—there are plenty of other desperate individuals out there ready to take their place.
This model was put to a stress test during the COVID-19 pandemic and the so-called "Great Resignation." The causes for this are controversial and likely manifold, but it's probably fair to say that widespread burnout finally caught up with people, as millions realized that they could no longer continue to live with a 24-7 high-pressure existence. That almost anything—including unemployment and poverty—was preferable.
As of this writing, many businesses in all sorts of industries are, for the first time in recent memory, having a hard time finding employees.* One solution they might consider to help attract new workers and keep existing ones from leaving: put an effort into making employees feel safe, and give them ample opportunities to rest, recuperate, and reach homeostasis.
They'll be happier, healthier, and almost certain to do better work.
Excerpted and adapted from Our Polyvagal World © 2023 by Stephen W. Porges and Seth Porges. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.