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Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe

Would you rather be in great danger and feel safe or be safe but feel terrified?

Key points

  • Strategies intended to increase your safety, if based on feelings, can reduce your safety.
  • Feeling safe is not proof of safety.
  • Fear is not proof of danger.
  • Safety depends on an ability to modify our innate defensive systems.

When I speak with a person who is troubled by flying, the difficulty is sometimes panic. But at other times it is concern about physical safety. What I’d like to point out is this: strategies intended to keep you safe, if based on feelings, can result in less safety.

For example, last week a client told me that when driving, if a trailer-truck comes up behind her, she gets afraid. To deal with her fear, she always drives in the right-hand lane. She stays in the right-hand lane so she can pull off the road if a trailer-truck comes up behind her.

I questioned her. "Do you really mean that you pull off the road if a trailer truck comes up behind you?" She said, "Yes. I’m afraid he’s going to hit me." Astounded, I had to figure out what to say. I told her, "There’s no reason why the trailer truck would hit you simply because it is following you. But if you slow down and pull off onto the shoulder, you are doing something unexpected. The driver might not react quickly enough to avoid hitting you."

She had trouble taking in what I had to say. It was as if the information was coming to her from outer space. She couldn't see how something that made her feel safe could be dangerous.

If a strategy to be safe is nothing more than what makes us feel safer, the strategy is probably flawed. For example, fearful fliers feel safe when driving. So, if they follow their feelings rather than their logic, they expose themselves to danger by driving for hours when they could reach the destination safely in a few minutes by flying.

If we simply follow our feelings, our efforts to achieve safety are based on our primitive genetic programming. Even when a client recognizes that driving is not as safe as flying, they may choose to be less safe to avoid feeling unsafe. In other words, they are OK with being in danger so long as they feel safe when they do it.

Stephen Porges argues in Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation that our safety is "dependent on an ability to downregulate and modify the innate defensive systems," the fight, flight, or freeze response that we inherited. He says that human survival was made possible by the development of the ability to send and receive signals that calm us when we are with a person who is trustworthy. By downregulating the urge to run, fight, or freeze, humans became able to cooperate in ways that the fight, flight, or freeze response would have made impossible.

Though logically we know the plane is safe, unlike a safe person, the plane does not give off signals that make us feel safe. As a result of noises, motions we don't control, and no way to escape, our ancient protective systems may make us feel unsafe when we fly.

But since flying is so much safer than driving, we need to be able to feel safer when doing what is safer. In the SOAR fear of flying program we tap into our ability to override the fight, flight, or freeze response by linking flying to a memory of being with a trusted person.

To fly, or to tolerate a trailer-truck following us, we need to downregulate the primitive fight, flight, or freeze response.


Human survival depends on our ability to send and receive signals that we are safe when we are with a person we can trust.

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