The calming effect of relationships
During COVID, my wife and I, like many people, went for a daily walk in our neighbourhood. Over time, we would see the same people and say hi to them. It was a pleasant experience to have even a stranger smile and say hello. Of course, I wondered what the biological significance of this reaction could be. I decided that my body was getting “it’s safe here” signals from other bodies.
It’s not a giant evolutionary leap to come to that conclusion. We can instantly (within milliseconds) assess whether the incoming sights and sounds are a threat. Smiling faces would signal “non-threat” and even “more safety,” depending on the situation.
Calming touch signals safety
In a recent paper, researchers described the calming effect of touch on humans. The authors propose that a soothing, gentle touch is calming because it signals social safety. Two pathways in the brain support the effect. One is a bottom-up “no threat here,” and the other is a top-down reward “this is nice” pathway. (I am simplifying this.). But as any pet owner would know, this touching process can also occur with pets.
Almost 100 years ago, Pavlov and Gantt noticed the soothing effects of a dog handler petting their dogs. It was so pronounced they called it the “effect of person.” This same thing goes on with adults soothing children. When parents soothe children, they send a powerful message: “You are safe now.”
Triangles can be calming
This is more evidence that families operate as emotional units. My emotional system is picking up safe (or not safe) signals from others in my family. This has a direct effect on my physiology and emotional regulation. Triangles operate on this principle. For example, Pat and Chris disagree on something. The tension rises, and the “it’s safe here” signals go down. Later, Chris reaches out to Tony and Tony calmly listens and offers support. Tony signals, “It’s safe here.” Unfortunately, only Chris might calm down, while Tony gets less calm. Tony’s experience is that Chris is upset and gets a not-so-safe signal from Chris. Tony will often then work to reassure Chris so they can BOTH be calm. Notice, however, that the relationship between Pat and Chris hasn’t been made safe again. This is part of the problem with triangles.
What signals are you sending
It would seem that learning how to radiate “it’s safe here” could be very useful. I think a well-differentiated person would do that automatically. Differences in opinions do not threaten a well-differentiated person. They don’t think (or feel) that they must make everything okay for others. Nor do they expect others to make everything okay for them. They can be calm and neutral. This signals “safety” to those around them.
Having a partner or good friend with whom I have good emotional contact is like having a “safe space” to go to. It’s calming. It’s healthy. And not having this means one doesn’t get that calming influence, which isn’t healthy.
The simple act of smiling and saying hello, or please and thank you, is one way to send out safety signals. You are more likely to get safety signals back, which can have a calming effect on you as well.
Thank you for your interest in family systems.
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Read the research article referenced above Calming Effects of Touch
Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.