It’s been ten years since the 9 11 terrorist attacks and we’re living in a time of significantly more uncertainty. People seem to be feeling less “safe” and “secure” about what the future will hold, and there is a sense that humanity as a whole is undergoing a reorganization on multiple levels.
This post makes some distinctions about what safety, certainty, security and physical survival really mean (and the role that these factors play in an individual’s health and well being, and possibly the future of humanity as a whole).
- The earth is heating up much faster than scientist previously thought
- There have been numerous recent natural disasters
- We’re entering an economic “winter” in the US
- Our debt has spiraled out of control
- Over 14 million Americans are unemployed
- 43 million people in the US are on food stamps
- The threat of another terrorist attack constantly looms
- The situation is probably going to get a lot worse.
How does reading those statements make you feel? More or less uncertain? More or less safe? Most likely more uncertain and less safe.
But What is Safety Really?
Wikipedia defines safety as “The condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accident, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable.”
To be safe then, really means to be protected from any uncertainty or risk (According to the above definition, anything that could potentially have “non-desirable” consequences is unsafe!) If insulation from uncertainty is what it takes to feel safe however, then feeling safe in the constantly changing, risk-filled world we live in will be difficult if not impossible.
I believe that when people say they don’t feel “safe”, what they’re really saying is that they feel uncertain.
They’re unsure what’s going to happen and they’re afraid of the unknown. They are acutely aware of the possibility that a “non-desirable” consequence might occur, and their body/mind/physiology has sprung into action preparing them for protection and survival.
Another way to say this is, they’ve gone into a defensive fight-or-flight “lizard brain” mode in order to stay vigilant and defend themselves from “non-desirable” consequences.
In general it seems that the more uncertain someone feels, the more unsafe they start to feel. And the more unsafe they start to feel the more “security” they begin to seek out.
Security is defined as “the degree of protection against danger, damage, loss, and crime in one’s environment.”
Uncertainty can create a desire for increased security and protection, because when we’re not sure if we’re going to be OK we tend to want to regain our certainty at any cost.
The Department of Homeland Security is a great example of how high uncertainty gave rise to an entirely new government security program. The Department was established shortly after the 9/11 attacks in order to provide a then very uncertain public with an increased sense of safety (minus a significant amount of freedom, which is always the trade-off for increased levels of “security”).
Safe, Secure and Certain = Happy and Healthy or Does It?
When it comes to health and well being, it would seem that increased security measures and safety precautions would help people feel more certain and at ease, which should lead to greater health and happiness.
But according to a 2011 public safety survey nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 do not feel safer in their day-to-day lives in the 10 years since 9/11 despite the increased security (It is unfortunate that a majority of our young adults are the most fearful for their safety of any segment of the population), and additional surveys show that as a whole Americans aren’t any happier now than they were in the 1950’s.
My observation from working with thousands of patients over the past 15 years, is that the more focused a person is on their “safety”, and the more emphasis they put on being secure, the less physical, emotional and psychological well being they tend to experience.
This is not to say that taking conscious and proactive measures to ensure safety and security causes unhappiness — on the contrary a lack of focus on fundamental safety and security can certainly contribute to unhappiness — however too much focus on trying to remain safe and secure by attempting to control and manipulate as many external factors as possible (to insulate from feeling uncertain) is a formula for stress and unhappiness.
Safety is a concept of the mind.
Unlike the physiological state of “survival” — which is defined as “the struggle to remain alive and living”, the state of feeling safe or unsafe depends on what you are focusing on and what that means to you. Safety is something that you feel because you believe one of the following:
- Nothing is going to change too dramatically in the near future that could result in a non-desirable outcome, or:
- Even if the things that I am expecting to stay the same end up radically changing in the next few minutes, I will be able to quickly adapt and change with them.
The truth is if your life is not in literal and immediate jeopardy, then there is no reason to be in a hypervigilant, defensive “survival” mode.
If you feel uncertain, notice what’s going on in your body. Pay attention to your breath, your movements and posture. Notice where your focus goes. Uncertainty does not have to trigger a survival reaction.
If your entire physiology and sense of “safety” hinges on things staying the same, your desire for safety and security will begin to increase. Expect things to change.
The more willing you are to explore new possibilities and ways of being and doing, the safer and more secure you will feel.
I believe we are at a crossroads in our culture. Yes, there are people who want to cause harm to us, and a certain level of security is definitely necessary. But as a society we need to get our sense of safety from knowing that we can adapt to whatever comes our way, and proactively create our future, not from believing that we can insulate ourselves from the feeling of uncertainty through never-ending vigilance.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion.
Learn more about the tools and processes we use at the Well Being Center to help people better adapt and change in our uncertain, ever-changing world.