In an Era of Chaos, Find Your Safe Place

If you’re a member of any marginalized group–whether it’s due to your race, sexuality, gender, national origin, ability, socioeconomic status or any other factor–the world (and the US especially) is a scary place for you right now. Recent months have seen a resurgence of bigotry, acts of violence and threatening rhetoric against the most vulnerable people in our society. It’s difficult to feel secure in your world when those in power are vocal and active in their opposition to the rights you deserve as a human being.

It’s important to stay informed and up-to-date on current events, but as I’ve mentioned many times on the podcast and in previous posts, I think it’s at least equally important (if not more so) to take care of your mental health and wellbeing. I’ve seen a lot of hurting among marginalized people because of recent political and social events, and I’ve experienced a decent amount of despair myself. Of course, if tuning out the news and commentary and engaging in so-called “frivolous” activities is healthy for you, I encourage you to do that, and anyone who wants to shame you for that can flush themselves down the toilet.

But keeping informed and engaged doesn’t necessarily have to lead to being overcome by fear, sadness and uncertainty. These feelings are certainly valid and reasonable to have; however, when negative feelings completely take over your emotional landscape, it has a strong impact on your ability to live a productive and fulfilling life. As humans, one of our basic emotional needs is a feeling of safety. Here are a few tips to help you find safety, even in those times when you choose to fully engage with this dangerous world.

Finding safe places in your social sphere

The first place to look for safety is, of course, among those places and people that you already know you can trust. A safe person is anyone who you can speak with freely and openly, without fear of judgment, retribution or unwarranted criticism. For most people, this would be your closest friends, family, or romantic partners. (And hey, you probably didn’t need me to advise you to rely on your loved ones, and that those truly care about you will be happy to do anything they can to help… but in the interest of comprehensiveness, there it is.)

Support groups can also be a huge contributor to feelings of safety, especially for members of marginalized groups. It’s easy to feel isolated if you don’t interact with any other members of your group(s) on a regular basis, and often just knowing that others are experiencing the same fears and that you have a community of peers to help prop you up can make a big difference in your emotional security. If you can, take advantage of support groups in your area for queer people, trans people, people of color, women, chronic illness sufferers, or any other axis of marginalization you may experience. If that’s not available to you, don’t discount online communities, especially forums and Facebook groups! People from all over the country and the world can gather there to share experiences, lend advice and resources, and support one another practically and emotionally.

If your negative feelings are becoming so overwhelming that it’s straining your relationships, work life, or ability to function day-to-day, consider seeing a therapist or counselor, even for just a few sessions. Counseling isn’t just for people with diagnosed mental illness. I’m a strong believer that almost everyone can benefit from talking over their problems with a neutral third party with training in psychology, relationship dynamics and helping others meet personal goals. Therapists are trained in ethics and strive to make their office a confidential and safe place for their clients. (If you need help finding a counselor, I got you, kid!)

And here’s the best part of all this: You don’t necessarily need anyone else to help you make a safe place. Sometimes, being alone in your room with a good book and cup of tea can be a safe refuge from the evils of the world. Sitting quietly and listening to the rain, watching a favorite movie, doing a hobby, making a point to take a different route home from work… Even things as simple and “everyday” as these can help you feel grounded and in control of your world.

Building a mental safe place (aka the real point of this post)

Sometimes you have obligations which keep you from your real-world safe place, your safe people are unavailable, or you feel so unsafe that you can’t open up others. Maybe you feel that the world is an inherently dangerous place and that your safety can’t be guaranteed even when you’re alone. People who have experienced trauma, especially, may feel chronically mistrusting of others and hypervigilant even in the absence of any immediate threats, so they can never feel completely safe anywhere. In these cases, don’t give up – it’s time to DIY and make a safe place inside yourself. (Awwwwww.)

How it works

In our last good news episode, I touched on a way I’ve been keeping myself feeling safe lately. The safe place exercise is a technique used in EMDR to help people with PTSD establish a sense of internal calm and safety when suffering from re-experiencing symptoms. In an EMDR processing session, the client revisits traumatic memories in detail, which can sometimes result in the triggering of intense fear, sadness, shame or loss. To re-establish the client’s sense of safety at the end of a session, the therapist guides them to their mental safe place where they can recover. Outside of the therapist’s office, too, trauma survivors can retreat to this mental safe place to help them re-stabilize when suffering from flashbacks, panic attacks, hypervigilance or just general feelings of unease.

People with PTSD aren’t the only ones who can get overwhelmed by fear, anger and sadness, and we aren’t the only ones who need help quieting our racing thoughts sometimes. Like many therapy techniques, this can be useful to people without mental illness as well. Anyone can benefit from having a peaceful oasis that travels with you wherever you go. You can read about the basics of the technique here, but I’ll break down the process of constructing and visiting your safe place with a handy, easy-to-remember acronym!

Prepare. Get comfortable somewhere where you won’t be interrupted or distracted (especially by a whiny cat demanding füd). I prefer to lie down in bed or on the couch, but sitting upright is also fine as long as it puts you at ease. If it helps you relax and focus, put on some soft music or nature sounds. There are thousands of hours of free relaxation and meditation music and sounds on YouTube to take advantage of. At my therapist’s recommendation, I put headphones on and listen to bilateral music as an auditory analog to the stimulation done in an EMDR session.

Experience a safe place in your mind’s eye. This is a place where you feel totally at peace, where you can be fully yourself, and where you know nothing and no one can harm you. It could be an exact replica of a real-life place you’ve been, a location from a book or movie, or an environment that you construct from scratch. It can be as enclosed or expansive as you need it to be. My therapist told me that her safe place is a warm, sunny beach, while another one of her clients imagines herself in a small windowless room padded with lots of soft pillows. My safe place is on the larger side and covers several acres. If you’re having trouble generating ideas, start with an empty white expanse and add features one by one. Are you outdoors or indoors? What time of year is it? What temperature is the air? Are there any plants, furniture or items near you? What do they look like? Try out a few different ideas and see what sticks. Whatever type of environment makes you most relaxed, content and “at home” is the way to go.

Noodle around. Once you get the basic layout of your safe place solid, start to add, subtract and change aspects of it based on what makes you feel safest and most comforted at the time. This is my favorite part of the exercise – your safe place is totally your own and doesn’t even have to conform to the laws of reality if you don’t want it to. Magic? No probalo. My safe place has a pair of unicorns who live in the woods nearby and protect me and my loved ones from any danger that might approach. Futuristic sci-fi shit? I jump in it. I’ve got special force-fields that keep anyone but me from entering certain areas. If need be, you can change aspects of the environment from day to day depending on what you need in that moment. Each time I visit, I usually visualize myself in whichever area of the environment seems the most comforting to me at the time. I can change aspects within that area to suit what I’m feeling; maybe I’ll adjust the weather or time of day, conjure up an object to interact with, or create a one-time-use secret room if I need to be cloistered far away from everyone else. You can even imagine yourself as different from the real world. You could look different, feel different, or have abilities you don’t have in your real life. Sometimes I pretend I’m a certain fictional character I connect with (guess who?). Your imagination is quite literally the limit here.

Immerse yourself. Once you have your safe place thoroughly set up–which could take 5 minutes or several hours of cumulative time depending on how detailed you like it to be–spend some quality time there. Place yourself in the environment you’ve created and exist in it. What kinds of activities are you doing there? What are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations associated with being in this place? Are there any people, animals or mystical creatures around for you to interact with, or are you alone? See yourself doing and experiencing whatever you need to in order to bring yourself a deep sense of tranquility, safety, or maybe even joy.

Slow down. Don’t worry if you find your mind wandering, especially the first few times you do it or if you’re getting back into it after a while off. It’s natural for the mind to want to go off in different directions and it takes practice to become focused. The first time I tried this exercise, I managed to be “on task” maybe 5 of the 15 minutes, but each time I do it I have an easier time focusing and sometimes am surprised by how quickly the time goes by. Sometimes you might have something else on your mind and have trouble fully immersing yourself in the world you’ve created, and that’s okay! Do what you can at the time. Go at your own pace–remember, the aim is to feel safe, and beating yourself up for getting distracted or doing it “wrong” isn’t kind to yourself and won’t contribute to a sense of safety.

When to use it

Start out doing this exercise for 15-20 minutes at a time as part of your daily routine. I like to do it before bed, but you can do it at any time when you will be free from obligations and distractions, and you can focus and be comfortable. (Just don’t do it while driving, because you might get so relaxed that you fall asleep.)

As your connection to this place becomes clearer and stronger when you practice under “normal” circumstances, start to go there when you feel a little frustrated, sad or scared, and gradually build your way up to using this technique when you feel more intense versions of those emotions. Like any skill, it will take time for this to become easier for you to do. If you’re like me, when you feel overwhelmed you’ll naturally revert to whatever coping mechanisms you typically use, whether healthy or unhealthy (okay, typically unhealthy). Over time it will become natural for you to want to go to this place when you’re feeling unsafe. It will help you calm down more quickly, freeing your mind up for problem-solving rather than continuing to circle the drain. Even if you’re not able to have some time alone or lay down and close your eyes for the full experience, you can still call up some mental images, and with them the feelings of serenity you experience while there.

Now go out there and feel SAFE! And to help you get started, here’s a representation of who you truly are, underneath all the hurt. And who are you to tell this kickass kid that she doesn’t deserve safety? Of course she does, you monster.