Applying the Neuroscience of Safety

By | 2017-06-28T12:42:52+00:00 June 28th, 2017|

Any individual with an insecure attachment style or Attachment Disorder needs a sense of safety in order to heal.

In this article, we are going to apply the neuroscience of safety as it relates to working and healing a child with Attachment Disorder.

This neuroscience has many other applications as well, and parents who feel unsafe with their children will also be able to apply some of the tools for themselves.  

A Felt Sense of Safety

When it comes to threat or safety, the only thing that matters for the brain is the felt sense. This means that whether the threat of safety is real, perceived, or imagined, it is all the same to the brain. In that moment, if the person has a felt sense of threat, the survival systems will be turned on.

The sense of threat can be physical or emotional/psychological. It does not matter what the source or the type of threat is for the brain to turn on its survival systems.  

As we look at what is going on in the brain as it relates to threat versus safety, we realize that any felt sense of danger will sabotage our efforts in healing the brain from Attachment Disorder. Both physical and emotional/psychological safety have to be established for true healing to occur.  

We are going to specifically look at physical safety and how to empower you with tools that will help you to create a felt sense of physical safety for your child. These tools are applicable to anyone, and if you are struggling to feel physically safe in your home with your child, you will be able to use these tools as well!

Safety Is the Truth

Therefore, a sense of safety is the most important condition for any therapeutic environment where healing is promoted.

If the body has been physically injured, but one is still in physical danger, the body does not begin the repair process, it maintains itself in the survival mode. Only when the body is physically safe does the shift from “protect” to “repair” happen.  

This is even more so with the brain and the nervous system.  

The survival system in the brain includes several different areas of the brain that are located in the lower brain – the limbic system and the brainstem (1).  

In order to turn on the higher level of the brain, the cortex where logic and reason are engaged, a felt sense of safety needs to be present. This felt sense of safety is the only thing that will turn off the active survival system. 

John Micsac, who is a childhood trauma consultant and founder of National Institute for Resilience and Wellness, states: “Kids cannot become logical and understand cause and effect thinking until their body and mind systems experience balance through restorative relationships and appropriate sensory experiences.” (2)

A sense of safety facilitates the growth and learning of the brain. More importantly for Attachment Disorder – a sense of safety promotes neuroplasticity – rewiring of old brain pathways.  

A sense of safety is associated with the hormone Oxytocin, also known as, the Love or Safety hormone, as well as the Trust hormone. This is the hormone that is also involved in such processes as birthing, breastfeeding, and orgasm during sex. Oxytocin promotes the feeling of complete safety in vulnerability with another.

It is vital to understand that safety is extremely important for the brain, as well as for rewiring the old pathways, especially as it relates to interpersonal social dynamics and emotional regulation. The neuroscientist who brought us the Dorsal Vagal Theory, Stephen Porges, explains how safety modulates our ability to develop secure attachments. The figure below summarizes Porges’ view of the role of Autonomic Nervous System, and shows how safety is necessary for one to be engaged in their environment and in relationships (3).

Bottom-Up Approach to Healing

When working with a child who has Attachment Disorder and when applying tools from the neuroscience of safety, it facilitates rewiring of the brain pathways from the bottom up. This is consistent with the neuroscience understanding of the lower levels of the brain controlling the higher levels of the brain if in a state of danger or perceived threat. Some degree of behavior management can be achieved through a top-down approach (cognitive based approaches), but true healing requires rewiring of the pathways of the lower brain and nervous system.  

How to Facilitate a Felt Sense of Physical Safety

There are 4 topics to address when considering how to create a physical therapeutic environment. These 4 topics are the sensory activity of an environment, the size of the space, the presence of other people, and defensive orienting.  

Sensory Activity of an Environment

The amount of sensory input that one can get from the environment is so important for parents and professionals working with children with Attachment Disorder.  


Allow me to relate this to other children with sensory processing problems to paint a picture.  

Autistic children have sensory processing problems. What happens if you put an autistic child smack dab in the middle of a circus? Let’s look at all the sensory information that child is taking in:

  • Smells – food, body odor, perfumes, burning smell from firecrackers.
  • Sounds – voices of people talking, laughter, yelling from stands trying to entice circus-goers to come play their games, machinery sounds of the different rides, and the screams of the people riding.
  • Sight – What feels like millions of people walking in a million different directions, each wearing cloths along with articles of belonging, which are all of different sizes, shapes, and colors. Games, toys, and food. Flashing and swirling lights of different colors.  
  • Touch – people bumping into you and into each other, other people sitting or standing up against you on the rides or at the stands. Maybe you are holding on to someone’s hand, the weather of the environment.
  • Taste – hopefully it is just the food that is being eaten
  • Proprioception – (where your body is in space) – jolting and flipping if you are on rides, getting sensory information from your feet if you are walking about, whether it is hard (Asphalt, cement), soft (dirt, bark), or flat.

In the beginning of their healing, children with Attachment Disorder need to be accommodated as if they have a sensory processing disorder… because they do.  

When a nervous system and brain are in survival mode, part of their job to protect their physical being is to pick up on all of the cues from the environment. This is a type of hyper vigilance that happens, mostly on a subconscious level.  

If the nervous system needs to pick up on all the cues from the environment, an environment that has as much going on as the circus example is going to overwhelm their system.  

This often plays out in a common experience for most parents… until they learn otherwise!  

The children fall apart. They start displaying behaviors or may get emotionally dysregulated, going into quiet shut down mode or going into crazy hyper mode.  

One parent posted their 12 signs of sensory overload in their child, but this can go for anybody:

  • Loss of Balance/coordination (after all, we are overloading the same system that manages where we feel our body is in space
  • skin flushes or goes pale
  • Child is verbalizing STOP!
  • Child refuses to participate in activities (shut down/freeze mode)
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Hysteria and crying
  • Stomach ache
  • Sweating
  • Child becomes angry, irritable, or agitated
  • Child begins repeating their words or actions
  • Child tries to shut out stimulation or starts self-soothing behaviors
  • Child lashes out

It is common for a child with Attachment Disorder to not necessarily fall apart at the event, but also as soon as they leave. They have been trying to hold it together for so long, and when they leave that overly stimulating environment, their system lets down and then discharges all the tension through emotional dysregulation and behaviors.

Thus, in the beginning phase of healing a child with Attachment Disorder, the child should only be exposed to environments that have a level of activity and sensory input that they can handle successfully – that their nervous system can handle successfully.  

This will have to be a very intentional intervention by the parent, because our society has created a lot more hustle and bustle activity than generations ago!  

Stores and grocery shopping are not places that children with Attachment Disorder can successfully handle in the beginning. Find someone else to grocery shop for you, or have someone else stay with your child at home or in the car while you shop.  

Every environment you take your child to should go under the close scrutiny of the sensory test: sounds, sights, smells, touch, and taste. Do not forget to include the amount of people and the pace of the activity in the sights category.    

Nature Is the Ultimate Therapeutic Environment

Because of this sensory sensitivity and overload, nature is the ultimate therapeutic environment!  

Think about the pace of nature, and the overall activity level compared to the freeway, the store, or a birthday party. Out in nature, the number of things moving and the pace at which they are moving are much more manageable. Even the sounds are calming and therapeutic, rather than the noise of machines, carts, and cars.

In nature, you can observe until you feel safe to explore further. Exploration and play is enhanced because of this, especially since there is less sensory and it feels much more manageable. One is not bombarded with activity and noise, but can sit next to the water and watch for as long as desired before actually touching the water.

There are certain elements of nature that are more therapeutic than others.  

  • Water has a very calming effect, whether it is a still body of water, moving with a current, or a repeating cycle of waves.  
  • Trees have a very strong character to them, especially as they stand still or their leaves sway in a breeze.  
  • Watching an eagle or a bird soar in the sky uplifts the mood and calms anxiety.  
  • Watching a squirrel run around, get startled, climb up a tree, and repeat that cycle over and over has a playful effect on the mood, and helps our systems respond faster from startles through mirroring their nervous system responses.  

Not only on a sensory level is nature therapeutic, but being around plants and trees purifies the air from toxins emitted by cars and machines… the city by-products!  

Defensive Orienting Response: Satisfying the Biological Need for Physical Safety

You can use defensive orienting as a tool with your child when entering or transitioning between environments and activities to help their nervous system calm down, focus, and stay grounded.

Out of all the tools, defensive orienting is one that is often not known about, but is the most powerful.  

What Is Defensive Orienting?

Defensive orienting is a fancy academic word used among trauma professionals working with the nervous system to describe the biological response for a person’s need to look around for threats or danger.

Defensive orienting is an automatic biological response, meaning it is wired into every animal.  It uses sight to assess for danger after it has been startled, whether by an outside cue or an internal “gut” feeling.

Let’s give an example of defensive orienting. Think of a sound that might startle you. You are in your living room folding laundry and all of a sudden you hear your front door open.  

It could be your kid, but it could be something dangerous. How do you instinctively assess the danger? You look over at the front door to see who is walking in. You just used defensive orienting.  

For those individuals who have used the freeze response to survive many different situations in their life, this defensive orienting can often be overpowered by their programmed response to immediately go into freeze.

For example, you hear the front door opening, but instead of turning to look (defensively orienting), you feel your stomach twist into knots, you feel the sense of tightness in your chest, but you shut down that natural instinct to look, and you continue to fold clothes. You then are relying more heavily on your other sensory systems (like sound) to assess the danger by listening for the sound of footsteps from your child rather than a stranger.  

In the meantime though, your system has gone into at least partial freeze response, which is a very familiar place, though a very taxing place for your system. It is panic suppressed. This comes at a tremendous energy cost to your system, and if you are in the healing process, it sets you back in the healing of your nervous system and body.  

Using Defensive Orienting As A Tool in Therapeutic Parenting

How can we use defensive orienting as a tool with our children to help their healing process?

Defensive orienting is one of the reasons why watching T.V., playing video games, or having screen time is not something that can be a part of the therapeutic environment. Here is a video from Boston Children’s Hospital that explains why.

It is all too common to rush between activities and places. We have so much to do, so little time, we have to hurry. This sense of urgency takes away from being able to help our child’s nervous system stay grounded and feel safe, because it removes the ability to really utilize defensive orienting.  

These are examples of how to use defensive orienting in your everyday moments with your child:

  1. You hear a sound that breaks the focus of the moment, you take this moment to engage with your child and take a break before continuing on with the day
  2. Change your posture by stretching or standing, but in a calm way to give physical cues to your child that you are not afraid.
  3. Say “that sound sort of startled me!” Chuckle a bit, laugh at yourself, but in a compassionate way. “Why don’t we take a few minutes to just look around the room.  Hmm… it seems everything is ok. I feel myself calm again and ready to get back to …”
  4. You pull up outside of a bank or store you need to go into, you stay buckled up, and calmly look all around, even behind the car.  
  5. You can then say, “It all looks good and I feel safe getting out of the car. How about you?  Did you take a look around too?”
  6. You and your child arrive at an event with other people present, you find a spot just outside and out of the way and say, “I just want to orient myself to what is going on so I can be calm and be my best self. Oh, I hear this person’s voice! It sounds like there are several different groups talking. When I walk in the door, I am going to pause a moment to orient myself to what I see, and see if it matches what I heard out here! It’ll be a game to see what all I could pick up just with my ears out here!”

Yes, at first this will be awkward for you and them, as you are making orienting an intentional action when it is normally an automatic process, but by doing this, it will have a few bonus results that you may not expect.

Your child will begin to see that you take safety very important, and will therefore, trust you more with their safety.

  • They will be curious about what you’re doing and will watch you – you need them to watch you while they are in the attachment phase!
  • They will start to learn actions they can actively do in order to keep themselves feeling safe. They will no longer feel as helpless and scared, because they have watched and learned from you on how to keep safe.
  • By teaching them tools they can use to keep themselves safe will empower them, which will cause them to be less likely to be triggered or lash out with anger and violence.

As we have seen, it is vital to help teach and show a child with Attachment Disorder how to find their felt sense of safety. We have looked at the neuroscience of safety and how it can drastically influence a person’s life, as well as how to use defensive orienting to further help one’s child heal.

Have you used any of these tools when helping your child feel safe in crowded overly stimulated places? Have they helped your child or yourself?

I’d love to hear about your journey or your child’s journey in healing from Attachment Disorder.

Encouraging you on,

Dr. Aimie



  3. Porges, Stephen, PhD (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiogolical Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-regulation.  W.W. Norton & Company
  4. Bradley M.M. Natural Selective Attention: Orienting and Emotion.  Psychophysiology.  Jan 2009; 46(1): 1-11

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