Sense of Safety During COVID – Dr Johanna Lynch

Feeling secure in frightening circumstances


from Luke’s Journal 2020 | Ageing Gracefully | Vol.25 No.3

A young woman wearing a mask isgazing out through a window

Abraham Maslow called humans ‘safety seeking’ organisms.1 He named safety as a human meta-need. This echoes the wisdom literature of my Judeo-Christian faith as God repeatedly reminds us not to fear and draws attention to Himself as refuge, rock and hiding place. His promise to be our covering, a shield, and rampart, to bring peace in the midst of life’s journey is a promise that not all people know.

I have felt called to translate my personal revelation of deep spiritual safety, in belonging to Jesus, into a wider invitation to our community. This has been a long journey that has been enacted in my own heart, clinical work, mentoring, and now my life as clinician-researcher!

As an Australian GP I shifted my practice to offer the first principle of trauma-informed care: Stabilisation2, and found myself asking new questions – such as, ‘Did you have anywhere in your childhood where you felt safe?’ The answers to these questions led me to new understandings of vague and confusing somatic complaints; life stories that spoke of relational invasion, disconnection or confusion; the impact of finances and living conditions; as well as complicated patterns of physiological arousal and the addictive and obsessive ways that people defend against being overwhelmed. Safety became a priority of my care. 

Not feeling safe and its importance to healthcare

Canadian consultant liaison psychiatrists note: “Feeling secure in a frightening circumstance is often perceived as a more urgent goal than remaining healthy over a longer time”.3 The realisation of the potential physiological impacts of not feeling safe and its fundamental importance to healthcare4 underpinned my doctoral research: Sense of Safety: A whole person approach to distress.5 The wisdom culture of Aboriginal understanding, of the integrated whole in their concept of Social and Emotional Wellbeing, was also a lovely alignment. Along the way I also discovered the word safe derives from the Proto-Indo-European base word solwos, meaning “whole”. So, I saw my doctoral research as a revelation, a sacred entrustment, a way to enfranchise whole person dignity and spiritual meaning-making as part of health, a way to describe key goals of healing.1

One night early in March 2020, I woke in the night with a desire to make my PhD useful to those who were facing the risks of COVID-19 in their day to day work. I integrated two key themes of my PhD research – Whole Person Domains (the circles in the image below) with Sense of Safety Dynamics – the processes that build, protect and reveal a sense of safety, tailoring questions for this pandemic time. This image is shared with the consent of Routledge my book publisher – feel free to share these questions with others. They prompt a direction of travel towards safety. They can prompt us to search for answers, new directions of growth, current resources, or new sources of help.

“Perhaps we can emerge from this time of COVID-19 with new-found strengths, connections, and meaning: our whole person grounded in refuge with the One who offers us both comfort and courage.”

Perhaps we can emerge from this time of COVID-19 with new-found strengths, connections, and meaning: our whole person grounded in refuge with the One who offers us both comfort and courage. In a way, this time of plague calls us to return to some of the deep truths about who we are and how we know our God… The One who the Psalmist reminds: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” Psalm 91:4

A diagram show a self-care model for having a sense of safety during COVID

 Dr Johanna Lynch
 Dr Johanna Lynch PhD MBBS FRACGP Grad Cert (Loss and Grief) FASPM is a GP psychotherapist in Brisbane working with adults who have survived childhood trauma and neglect. She teaches medical students, GPs and mental health clinicians and completed a PhD through University of Queensland – recently turned into a book "A Whole Person Approach to Wellbeing: Building Sense of Safety". 

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  1. Maslow, A.H., Motivation and Personality Third Edition, ed. R. Frager, Fadiman, J., McReynolds, C., Cox, R. 1954, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
  2. Kezelman, C. and P. Stavropoulos, Practice Guidelines for Treatment of Complex Trauma. 2019, Sydney: Blue Knot Foundation 
  3. Maunder, R.G. and J.J. Hunter, Can patients be ‘attached’to healthcare providers? An observational study to measure attachment phenomena in patient–provider relationships. BMJ open, 2016. 6(5): p. e011068.
  4. Lynch, J.M. and A.L. Kirkengen, Biology and Experience intertwined: trauma, neglect and physical health., in Humanising Mental Health Care in Australia: A Guide to Trauma-informed Approaches, R. Benjamin, J. Haliburn, and S. King, Editors. 2019, CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group, Routledge: Sydney.
  5. Lynch, J.M., Sense of Safety: a whole person approach to distress, in Primary Care Clinical Unit. 2019, University of Queensland: Brisbane. To be published by Routledge as a book in January 2021: Lynch, J.M. A Whole Person Approach to Wellbeing: Sense of Safety.