In these anxiety-ridden times, we need to talk about safety, and how to create a sense of safety inside ourselves that allows us to open up to this full human experience without being overwhelmed.
The unfortunate truth is, some people don't feel comfortable having an experience of safety. It may trigger nervous system alarm and hyper-sensitivity to threat and can form part of a burnout experience.
If "safety" is sensed as unsafe, we will naturally shutdown or withdraw, but also the fight-or-flight response can become entrenched and reduce our capacity for normal function, cognition, social connection and rest.
A big part of burnout recovery is creating a genuinely felt internal sense of safety, which is a skill that we can learn.
Ep#92 How to create safety with your magical Vagus nerve
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Dex Randall (00:00:09) - Hi, everyone. My name is Dex Randall and this is the Burnout to Leadership podcast, where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work. Hello, my friends. This is Dex. I'm glad you're here for this week's episode on the experience where it doesn't feel safe to feel safe. Sounds a bit paradoxical. Some listeners will be familiar with this idea and others will not. And primarily what I mean here is for some people, the feeling of safety rings, alarm bells, and it triggers fight or flight. One of my clients was speaking about this feeling this week, and I thought that others might also experience it. So I'm going to cover it on the podcast, particularly because I've never actually heard anyone else speak about it, trauma professionals included. And I think there's a great deal of focus in mental health circles and also workplaces and in schools and so on about creating a sense of safety, inclusion, equality and respect, which is tremendously heartening. But do you wonder why in these times we actually need this focus? I mean, why hasn't it always just been a priority? Why now? And what of the people for whom? For various reasons.
Dex Randall (00:01:32) - A sense of safety is of itself alarming because it's not an uncommon experience. People who aren't comfortable in what might appear to others to be a safe environment have additional pressures living in this world, and they're the people who may isolate themselves and experience low trust. Life may be harder. Daily interactions may be a challenge. For example, consider those who are socially anxious. Entering a room. Greeting a colleague or joining a Zoom meeting. Have you ever seen a person's brow wrinkle in concern when they encounter another human? Why do you think that is? You know, in this world of 8 billion people. Have you noticed the prevalence of social anxiety or consider the cost of social anxiety for the sufferer at large in the world in this in this crowded and and disconnected simultaneously those two things world and I think a lot of people experiencing PTSD fall into this group. I would say probably many children fall into this group. And I think there's kind of a lot of good news in the attention now being paid to creating this sense of social acceptance, support and safety.
Dex Randall (00:02:58) - And my experience of coaching is one of the best tools to increase safety, connection, trust and emotional intelligence is coaching, and it makes a huge difference to how easily anyone walks in this world and engages with people. In fact, the rich, warm and satisfying human connections that we can learn to cultivate, I think are the backbone of recovery from burnout. First and foremost, as I often say, improving our relationship with ourselves, stimulating our own compassion, acceptance, generosity, care and genuine, unconditional love for our own human life. I think this is the primary goal, the upside of burnout recovery from which other goodness radiates onto all of those around us. So we fill our own cup with kind attention for ourselves and it overflows onto our world. And this usually helps us relax into who we are, relax into our world as it is, and see it as perhaps less threatening. And really, we do this as we replace our previous burnout style of regime of terror, where our inner critic has been somewhat vocal in self, perhaps an excessive amount of slice and dice and yelling.
Dex Randall (00:04:21) - So that's what we're trying to replace with this internal safety, which reflects how we see everything else in the world whilst we feel safe inside. So if we stand in that tide of our internal threats, if we relax into our own bodies, we do feel much safer in the world. Like much less threatened by other humans and also, of course, by our work environment. We can really develop a much more harmonious experience of life when our hair is not on fire and we aren't constantly desperate for attention control, approval and belonging from others. Basically we're more intrinsically safe, the safety inside of us, rather than us running around being a bit needy, wishing other people would create that much needed safety for us. And that sense of internal safety can be built and reinforced. Whether you have social anxiety or not, whether you have PTSD or not, whether you have ADHD or not. There is plenty that you can do, though, with coaching. And really the condition of burnout is itself one of fear, fear and hiding and shame.
Dex Randall (00:05:34) - We perceive we're not able to perform at a high enough level to attain this ongoing sense of safety at work. And we feel rather alone with our problem. But also we feel inadequate imposters, ashamed like we've let the side down so we can start hiding ourselves away, withdrawing from any potential for being caught. Wrongfooted and then maybe criticized or failing to get stuff done. They're not really. It's a kind of implosion that feels like overwhelm, overwork, explosive frustration and disgrace. No matter how hard we try, we can't escape the feeling that we're not doing enough. It puts our job and our career and our status, probably our finances usually as well, our family. All of that is apparently in peril. Excruciatingly. We've got no idea how to fix it. And when I share all of this, it's really because it's what I hear from my clients. But I experienced burnout myself, so I went through exactly the same fire and got flayed like everyone else. So let me say again, if you relate to what I'm saying, if you yourself have chronic anxiety at work or socially or you've got ADHD or you don't feel safe and maybe you're in or near burnout.
Dex Randall (00:06:59) - Hear me now. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you. You're having an experience. Might bring up despair if it's been going for a while. But it's not a life sentence. It's temporary. Still temporary. People who get into burnout are usually gifted, intelligent, hardworking and tough, but their aM.O. is usually based around extracting this super high performance from themselves in an uncompromising way, kind of by sheer force of will. And really they're what we describe as type A behaviors, which means high work ethic, smart, high achievers, ambitious, driven, assertive and often even aggressive, impatient, decisive, but impulsive, fast moving, perfectionist, demanding, intolerant of anything they see as underachievement, often frustrated, sharp, angry or hostile. That's kind of the type-A bundle. And, you know, I'm still a Type A style of person, but I would say my edges have been considerably softened through coaching, and I'm a much stronger advocate for myself these days. And by extension, I hope, a better advocate for others.
Dex Randall (00:08:23) - Also, I have a much more ready sense of humor about mistakes and errors and I deeply enjoy relating with other people and my work success is no longer linked to overwork. I don't see it that way altogether. I really enjoy work and myself and others at work a lot more than I used to. In case you've never heard me say, this type A is not a personality type as first proposed. It's actually just a bundle of coping mechanisms for what we learned in childhood about needing to be a high performer and a hard worker in order to gain attention and respect and approval. I mean, no wonder it hurts as adults to see our performance go down the toilet in burnout. I'm only laughing because I remember very acutely what my own experience was like. It was not good. Anyway, the good news here is that we can change. We can unlearn old habits. We have neuroplasticity, we can unlearn, and we can learn to be gentler on ourselves and others and still perform better than we ever have in our lives.
Dex Randall (00:09:36) - That's really, I think, the juice of coaching. That's the goodness of coaching. We can just change a little. I did it and I'm pretty stubborn. I've got a pretty concrete head. So I believe that if I can change, if I can do it, if I can recover from burnout, then you can too. And I would encourage you to open to that idea, to that conversation. And of course, I'd love to talk to you about your personal potential for creating safety in your world and your experience and moving on from there. Personally, I think. The more that we all have conversations around creating safety, the better. Since a lack of safety appears to be somewhat endemic to our modern way of life. And collectively, a lot of us are suffering from various kinds of anxiety. And, you know, if you don't know what I mean when I'm talking about here, really for myself and for clients that I've worked with, we've lived with chronic fight or flight in burnout that can become extremely burdensome.
Dex Randall (00:10:46) - It shuts us down. We shut ourselves down chronically. And of course, a fried nervous system can't perform. Our restore functions are continually suppressed. That's sleep, digestion, tissue repair, growth, connection, intimacy are all suppressed chronically, and our cognitive functions are chronically impaired. So that's decision making, memory, concentration, analytical problem solving, creativity, even conversation. So kind of it's a bit like half our systems are semi permanently offline. So it would be no wonder then that many of us don't even feel safe when we notice that safety is present because half our systems are still down. And safety can mean a lot of things. But for those who, when they begin to experience safety, become alarmed or triggered and they shunt straight back into fight or flight. It might mean that as kids safety wasn't a reliable or on state for them, that dropping their guard and relaxing wasn't a realistic option. They needed to keep the antenna up as danger could strike at any time. Even when they were eating, watching TV, sleeping, playing or whatever.
Dex Randall (00:12:10) - And that could be because their parents or caregivers might have been violent or unpredictable; alcoholic; rageaholic; volatile or perhaps even mentally ill. So being off guard wasn't really a good idea as a kid in that kind of environment. And such people are likely to grow up traumatized with low trust, low ability to relax, especially socially. And hence when they experience safety, it's not only unfamiliar, but it's kind of unwelcome. The nervous system sticks the red flag up to make sure they're still actively scanning for danger. Well, of course there are antidotes to this. Happily, in the first instance, if you think this may happen for you, take notice. Become very gently and compassionately aware that it's happening for you. Okay. I was feeling safe, and now I don't feel safe. See what situations that some people, many other people, might perceive as relaxing are not relaxing for you. Notice anything that you perhaps used to enjoy that is not fun anymore? Work challenges, probably. But also perhaps there are things outside of work that used to be fun.
Dex Randall (00:13:27) - Friendship, walking the dog, sharing a meal, music, exercise that aren't fun anymore. Notice also at work. If you go into a meeting with a kind of impending sense of adversity that you might be ignored or excluded or overruled, judged, criticized, perhaps even attacked. Notice if you have no expectation of being supported as the converse, right? And you approach every work conversation with caution or defensiveness. Notice in the moments when you are supported. How were you able to receive that support? Does it resonate? Can you trust it? Can you integrate it? Do you feel the warmth of it when it's offered to you? Also notice any desire you may have to pull away from people or withdraw, isolate to protect your energy, perhaps, or recharge or simply to avoid interaction or more demands or recrimination. Notice if you stopped hanging out with friends, especially if you miss that. Notice the quality of your partnerships and family relationships are very strained. You feel in some way culpable for that, yet unable to be more present.
Dex Randall (00:14:54) - Notice as well. If your love feels choked down inside of you and you're not able to access it or share it, perhaps too moody, exhausted or frustrated to share it. I mean, that's an almost universal feature of burnout. And please we're noticing here with compassion. Do not blame yourself for any of this, if it's happening for you. Because if it is happening for you, you're a person that's suffering very greatly. And just retracting, probably away from people, away from the world to conserve what you can of your equilibrium and your energy. And of course., when you move away from human contact, you're the one who pays the price as well. It deprives you of the very connection that would nourish you, that would restore a little bit of warmth in the wasteland. And you deserve that. You deserve kindness and care. And burnout, too, don't forget, lies to us. It tells us that we're failing, that we are bad people, that we're letting people down. And really, it isn't true.
Dex Randall (00:16:02) - We're temporarily, perhaps not performing at our very best because we're suffering too much, a little bit wiped out. But if that's you, your goodness is still locked into your heart, waiting for its moment to make a big comeback. And I hope this is that moment for you to give yourself a break. Come up for air, breathe, take rest, restore vitality, perhaps make an opportunity to see the world through a new lens. Because if you're listening to this, this is the journey that's presenting itself to you right now. That's why you're here. This is your time to resurface and start living again, how you're intended to. And I can teach you how. This is the journey all my clients take. And then basically what they do is they find a much sounder footing. It feels a lot safer so that they can take the big step into the next stage of their life and start enjoying work again. I'm thinking right now of Dan, the CFO who came to me, having been stood down at work for six weeks after repeated panic attacks and anxiety.
Dex Randall (00:17:17) - After coaching, he started to love his job again, relishing team building, relishing mentoring like he used to, and creating really a very easy success once he got over the panic and anxiety. Another client, Sam, who sales figures weren't really cutting it because he lost the plot every time he met with his boss or his peers or a client and said all the wrong things, forgot what he needed to convey and made himself look and feel incompetent. After coaching, he learned how to create confidence before going into each meeting. Reconnecting with all that's good about himself and what he has to offer and bringing all of that back into the work. Another tech client who became extremely defensive. Every time he had a work meeting, he was abrasive. He struggled with collaboration, and actually he feared losing his job. He did not feel safe. Feeling safe, every time it popped up, he squashed it. So he was basically constantly on edge. And after coaching, he'd actually been promoted to run two teams, and his collaboration was effortless, enjoyable and productive.
Dex Randall (00:18:32) - Another cardiologist client who'd been put on a performance plan for missing charting targets. And after coaching, what he did is he restored this full and deep confidence in himself. And he became quite excited about his own future, his own contribution. And he also has gone on to mentor many other physicians who suffer from challenges in the system as well. And again, another client terrified of speaking to his customers because he had supply chain issues and he couldn't deliver their orders. After coaching, he started collaborating with his customers on solutions despite continuing supply issues, raising his own ability to support them and improving relationships and his reputation. And by extension, he took a lot of pressure off his team. And while he was doing this, he tripled his own business and reoriented his business model to best support not just his customers, but his customers' customers. And I'm giving you these examples because I really want you to see that if you're in burnout, the struggles you have are probably not unusual. I really think the suffering in burnout is quite profound.
Dex Randall (00:19:45) - I know it comes with a flavor of despair and a lot of self-blame, shame, guilt and all of that. And I think that's not really helpful. But the experience you're having is probably typical of a person in burnout. So if you don't feel safe a lot of the time and you're experiencing burnout, I'm not at all surprised. I didn't in my burnout either. But those clients that I've just run through who have created enormous enjoyment and success for themselves in the coaching program, they simply learned to lighten up on themselves and notice the good in them. And I taught them some skills to overcome all the difficulties they were experiencing in burnout. Those clients I've just talked about, they're just the ones that are top of mind for me. They're not unicorns and their coaching results are typical for people coming out of burnout. The bottom line is, if you're not feeling safe, I can help. There really in recovery produces much higher and more sustainable feelings of safety and resilience and optimism and enthusiasm.
Dex Randall (00:20:51) - And from there, basically your whole life will open up. And also if you're listening to this and you feel unsafe, for immediate help with unsafety right now today also listen to episode 92 of the podcast How to Create Safety with Your Magical Vagus Nerve. So this is directly controlling, influencing your autonomic nervous system. They're very quick and simple exercises to bring yourself back from fight or flight into rest and repair. It's, to be honest, it's deceptively easy. And really to be able to switch from fight or flight to rest and repair on demand using these exercises with the vagus nerve is an amazing skill to have that you'll be able to use all the time. And all of this, having having access to these exercises, that's why I call the vagus nerve quite magical because it has an awful lot of ways that it allows us to reset our nervous system. So good. And I challenge you on this: if you if you're feeling a little bit upset and unsafe and you use these exercises, use them every day for a week, any time you're feeling unsafe and see what happens for you.
Dex Randall (00:22:12) - You started to create a new habit of being in fight or flight much less often and bringing yourself out quickly. And this is neuroplasticity, right? So every time you practice, you get better and better at it and it'll be easier and easier. But also, you know, and finally, particularly if feeling unsafe, feeling safe is unsafe for you, if you experience the feeling of safety as not terribly safe. Be very gentle with yourself, please, at all times and come and talk to me about how to restore equilibrium, safety, confidence, contentment and, by the way, work harmony and performance. If you're in chronic fight or flight, it will cause your human organism long term harm. Like physically. It will degrade the functions in your body. So please don't leave it too long. Come and talk to me at dexrandall.com. If burnout is your problem. Learn how to create safety as your default state. I can help. Come and talk to me about how to recover quickly and sustainably and get back to your best performance leadership and most of all, enjoyment inside work.
Dex Randall (00:23:25) - Now. If you enjoyed this episode, I'd really love you to rate and review the podcast. And also if you know somebody else who's heading towards or in burnout, please send them the podcast link. I recommend that new people listen to the first five episodes to get started. And certainly if you're listening to this and not feeling safety, then I wish you more safety. Please listen to the vagus exercises that will help restore your nervous system. Thank you so much for listening today. I'll catch you next time. If you're in burnout and ready to recover, come and join my burnout to leadership program. You can book in to talk with me a burnout or just tell me what's bugging you and let's make a plan to fix it.