When It Feels Unsafe to Relax… (Do These 4 Things)



As a survivor of sexual abuse and trauma, I understand how unsafe it can feel to relax…

Much of the abuse I experienced happened at night when I least expected it. Consequently, my body and nervous system learned to associate relaxation and rest with danger.

For many years, my body and nervous system were stuck on high alert, scanning for potential threats. I was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, which was exhausting!

When my husband and I were first married, I remember feeling so angry towards him whenever he napped on the sofa. How could he let his guard down? Couldn’t he see it was dangerous?! How could he feel so safe and relaxed all.the.time? I desperately wanted to feel that way too! But I just couldn’t get there.

 

I felt so broken because although I knew logically that I was safe, I certainly didn’t feel that way.

Perhaps you can relate?

As humans, we’re not designed to stay in Fight or Flight (Sympathetic Nervous System) for long periods of time. But trauma impacts us in such a way that we can get stuck there without respite for long periods of time. This can lead to all kinds of emotional and physical challenges.

In my case, the stress and hyper-vigilance took a huge toll on me physically and I ended up with severe GI issues in the form of SIBO. I lost a lot of weight, chunks of my hair fell out, I had extreme lethargy requiring weekly IVs, stomach pain and bloating, to name but a few symptoms..

The intense physical pain pushed me to process past traumas and learn how to relax and regulate my nervous system (parasympathetic state), so that I could finally rest and recover.

In doing so, I noticed that my fear of relaxing was particularly high any time I sat on the sofa. As a child, sitting down was seen as “lazy” and punishment would always follow…

Consequently, any time I did sit on the sofa, my legs would feel restless and I’d get waves of dread and agitation, often escalating to a full-blown panic attack.

(Scroll down to keep reading…)

 

What worked for me…

Was allowing myself to sit on the ottoman instead of the sofa. Watching a show or movie from a more transient and upright position felt less threatening and much safer. I could see the door. I was prepared to flee or fight if needs be… My body, felt safer and began to release some of the tension and dread I’d been holding.

From there, I graduated to sitting on the sofa, bringing something with me to occupy my hands. A coloring book, my daughter would let me brush and braid her hair, or I’d snuggle with my dog.

And, any time the feelings of restlessness, fear or anxiety began to build, I’d Tap.

I’d reassure my body that “I’m safe here and now”. I’d look around me, orienting to my safe surroundings. I’d breathe deeply and Tap some more.

Little, by little, it all helped my body and nervous system register safety and build new associations to relaxing. And today, one of my favorite Sunday-Joys is to relax and take a nap on the sofa with Winnie, my dog tucked up beside me! ☺️

What worked for me may of course need modifying for you. But I share my experience to give you hope that relaxation doesn’t have to continue to feel impossible or unsafe because of what happened to you back then.

 

The next time you find yourself struggling to relax, you can try the following:

 

1) Notice how, when and where you’re trying to relax.

For example, are you in your bedroom or in a public place. What time of day is it? This will give you some insights into what events, memories or triggers may be beneath your challenges with relaxing. (For me this was relaxation/sleep = unsafe, because that’s when bad things happened…)

 

2) Explore what that brings up for you.

This might be an emotion such as fear or an impulse to run away (flight response).  Or you might hear words or old beliefs like “you’re lazy and selfish, always doing nothing…”

Always respect this information. It is your body, brain and nervous system trying to keep you safe. ☺️

 

3) When you are attempting to relax, do so in small measures (like 5 minutes) and as you do – focus on your immediate surroundings.

-Take a few deep breaths.

-Notice 5 things you can see,

-4 things you can touch,

-3 things you can hear,

-2 things you can smell and

-1 thing you can taste.

This can help to bring you into your body and this present moment – especially if you notice a tendency to panic or dissociate. The more we can learn to engage our senses and link them to safety, the less often they will be used only as channels to communicate threat or danger.

Imagine instead, enjoying a warm bowl of soup, the smell of your favorite hot drink (tea or cocoa) or the feel of a cozy blanket.

 

4) Practice Patience and Self-Compassion:

It’s ok if your ability to relax comes and goes. If it feels possible one minute but not the next, that’s ok! In fact, it’s very common for people to enjoy a minute or two of feeling good, followed directly by a rising fear or feeling of impending doom. This is your body naturally going back (pendulating) to high-alert. If this happens for you, keep reassuring yourself that you’re safe in this one moment. Over time, you will develop more tolerance for the good feelings that can come with relaxation and gradually you will be able to expand how much time you can spend there.

Remember… You are doing great!  ☺️

It’s not an easy journey, but it is possible, no matter what we’ve gone through, to re-wire old patterns of hyper-vigilance, so we can begin to relax just a little bit at a time – especially using tools like EFT Tapping.

I believe in you and I’m sending you love and compassion today! ❤️

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29 Comments on this post

  1. Hi Karen – so pleased I read your blog today about feeling safe to relax – it really helped to calm my reacing heart today – thank you so much – perhaps I should give myself more kindness and compassion – it is easy to give it to others – thank you very much for being there – take care xx

  2. Hi Karen – so pleased I read your blog today about feeling safe to relax – it really helped to calm my reacing heart today – thank you so much – perhaps I should give myself more kindness and compassion – it is easy to give it to others – thank you very much for being there – take care xx

    • Oh I’m so happy to hear that Bernice. It can be so challenging to be kind and compassionate towards ourself. Keep going, one day at a time. ☺️ I find it helpful to be kind to myself in little ways like asking “what would make me feel more comfortable in this moment?” Sort of like the way we might take care of a sick or injured child or pet. Sometimes it’s simple things like taking a hot shower or eating some yummy soup. Other times it might be listening to my body if I need an early night or some gentle movement. I’m so glad you’re here. Much love, Karen ❤️

  3. Thank you for these techniques to use to create safety while I allow myself to further investigate what may have happened in my past. Much of it is vague memories. Not that I want to remember all of the details. I want to continue becoming more consistently present and a full owner of the space I’ve been given to occupy. For a long while now, I’ve shrunk into myself, rather than lived freely.

    • I love the way your describe this learning to “occupy space”. It’s so true how much our past traumas can cause us to shrink and hide ourselves. Keep doing the work and what needs to come forward for your healing will do so in manageable pieces. 😊

  4. Thank you Karen! I love our sessions together. Regardless of how difficult the challenges that come up are, and how upsetting, working through them with your gentle guidance and Tapping, always help me feel better!

  5. Your insight as to why rest or certain places of rest struck such a cord with me. Though I have gone through various counselling and feel in a much better, safer, healthier space, I had never made the connection to resting or napping during the day and how I struggled with it. Much of my abuse took place during nap-time, and though I do not have full memories, it now makes total sense why it never felt right or comfortable to rest during the day. I also could relate to your response when your husband napped. I couldn’t understand and would get angry, viewing it as laziness when we were first married. Thankfully, that is no longer an issue as I grow & learn to honour my needs. Thank you for your thoughtful article with helpful techniques which will help all of us heal and move forward in our lives.

    • Wow Sandy – these are fantastic insights. 🤩 I’m so glad my blog post resonated with you and helped you see some similar patterns in your own life. 😀

  6. Hello thanks for the advice and your compassion. I have a walking app on my iPhone,so I will walk 10,000 steps a day, often , when I stop and look at the number of steps, it’s on the number 666 , for example 4,666 or 8666 . We are led to believe that 666 is a bad sign. Of course I googled the subject, was not what I expected. Said it was my angel’s trying to communicate, saying my life is out of sorts one way or the other. So I’m trying to really think about what I might be doing to bring my soul back in balance with the universe. Back in March 2020 I contacted Covid, about a week in I started having panic attacks, now on meds ( which worked) I’m still on . Feeling much better, but in the morning sometimes I feel a little anxious. Thanks Larry Simpson,

    • Angel numbers are truly fascinating. I’m so happy to hear your anxiety has lessened. I’m doing a presentation on anxiety for this year’s Tapping World Summit which you may find helpful. ☺️ I wonder what that balance might look and feel like for you Larry? Getting clear on that (if you haven’t already) may be extremely useful for you..😊

  7. Karen this was so very helpful. I enjoyed our 15 min discovery call a year or 2 ago. Thank you for your deeply practical and compassionate expertise.

  8. Hello Karen

    Thank you for this message, your honesty, your vulnerability and for sharing your healing journey with us.

    This is a triggering subject for me. Which tells me, there is more healing to be done here. Little by little, with tiny steps of kindness, self-awareness and compassion I will get there. It’s comforting to know you are cheering for all of us, Karen and team.

    Blessings

    • I’m sorry to hear that this is a triggering topic for you Sunny. I wonder if it might be helpful to imagine the word “NAP” or “REST” or “RELAXATION” (whichever fits best for you) on a sign that’s very, very far away? Maybe even so far away that you need binoculars to see the sign? What happens if you tap just on the image of the word itself – without any content, story or meaning at all? Very often I work with people in this way when approaching a triggering topic. It reduces some of the activation safely and makes it more manageable. It’s a safe way to begin. Let me know if you find this helpful ☺️

  9. Thank you Karen for your generosity in sharing the story and techniques. It is very helpful and hopefully forme. Sending you my gratitude.

  10. Thank you, this is beautiful. My hypervigilence has me trying to cover all bases at all times. “…you’re safe in this one moment” is so very helpful.

    • I’m so glad you found the one moment at a time approach helpful.💕 With trauma recovery, I always strive to break things down to their smallest, least overwhelming parts. Much love to you Susan. ☺️

  11. Thank you for posting this Karen! As I was reading I realize my worse times were during daylight hours, my abuser was a stay at home parent and the protector co dependent parent worked during daylight hours. As I child I learned to disassociate by bicycling in circles, roller skating in circles, swinging, etc, had to be within her eyesight but my mind was a million miles away. I had to maintain a semblance of activity, was not allowed to just rest or take it easy while the sun was up. Now, when I feel overwhelmed or stressed I go out walking in circles, same patterns in my neighborhood which at least gets me fresh air and exercise but doesn’t really help me address the steps I need to take action on that would address the source of overwhelm. I have been doing better during the second half of 2022 when I decided to just tackle one small pile a day. Clearing out some of the clutter is really helping me gain perspective and feel like I am slowly regaining control of my life.

    • This is so wonderful to hear Mary. Keep taking it one step at a time, finding little moments of stillness as you learn that you’re safe here and now. I’m really proud of the progress you’re making with this! Awesome you! 🫶🙌

  12. I can relate and lived with hypervigilence for decades. I am doing EFT certification course and it is helping but I am feeling overwhelmed with the mentoring assignments so I liked you second blog too.
    I can’t do it now but would like information on your fees for private tapping sessions at some possible future date. thanks

    • Hi Diane – that’s great that you’re doing a certification. See if you can tap before embarking on each assignment. It will hopefully help to reduce the overwhelm. 😊

      In terms of private sessions – I’m not currently taking on any new clients unfortunately. I’m focusing on creating online courses to be able to reach and help a greater number of people as they navigate their healing journey. More info coming soon! 😁

  13. Hi Karen,
    Ur work sounds so inspiring!! We are desperate here for help & Im feeling a deep need for better support. My daughter is a victim of sexual abuse, has been put on medication to calm her fears & anxieties but wants more than anything to have her body do it’s own work & get rid of those meds. She struggles to maintain herself. Plz reach out to me …. We need help desperately… tension is escalating & life just can’t be enjoyed!!??!?!?
    Can u plz work with us? Is there any possibility to meet u personally? It wd be encouraging to meet another survivor & be able to learn from u directly!!

    • Hi Chani,

      I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter’s abuse. I would recommend seeking a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (google search for Somatic Experiencing and you’ll find the SETI practitioner database) with experience of Tapping. Coming off meds needs to be done very carefully and under a licensed professional’s supervision. Unfortunately,

      I’m not working one-on-one now. But your daughter (depending on her age) could read my work or follow me on Instagram where she can feel part of a supportive healing community. Wishing you all the best as you seek out the right help for you and your daughter.

      Karen ☺️

  14. Thank You Karen… Hope You an Your Family are doing Good🤩🤩… Happy New Year Dear. Your blog posts are always so comforting, giving me so much hope , motivation to move towards accomplishing all that I’m working towards 😘. Thank You and Gratitude 🙏🏻💜.
    Lots of Love and lots more 🫶🏻,
    Sneha.
    ❤️

About Me



I'm Karen Ortner, an EFT Tapping expert, personal development coach, and childhood abuse survivor and I'm passionate about helping YOU in your healing journey!

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