Becoming Your Safe Space (Even When the World Feels Unsafe)

by Molly Schweers, LCMHC, LCAS

Reflecting on time spent since quarantine began, I have observed that the productivity culture has grown overwhelmingly despite all of us on social media posting content telling each other that it’s okay to rest. We continue to find increasingly new ways to stay busy from making our own bread (and muffins, and pizza dough, and basically anything we can think of from the extra sourdough starter to avoid food waste) to taking several extra minutes just to whip up our coffee so we can share a fun video and consume six times the caffeine in one drink just so we can be more productive with all the extra house work we can do after. While learning new skills and crafts is something to be celebrated, the need for balance seems to be looming. Another pattern I have noticed is hearing a lot of people say that they have gone several steps back in their progress since being in quarantine. All of the improvement in symptoms, skills learned, insights developed, connections made, and realties accepted are seemingly lost due to the need for previous methods of coping like drinking, binging, zoning out, or maybe an increase of emotions like anxiety or depression. I hear so much judgment and defeat. What if, instead of judgment, we got curious? What if we asked ourselves, “What is the purpose of this behavior or emotion?” My guess is that the answer will come down to words like consistency, comfort, stability, escape, control. The word that seems to be at the root of all of these is safety. The truth is, we are most likely searching for different ways to feel safe amidst the chaos that is the world currently.

If this seems like quite the jump going from making sourdough to needing safety, I understand. However, there is a difference between trying a new hobby and the need to constantly stay busy. And the thing about needing to stay busy is that this is a trauma response. There are varying degrees of trauma, from attachment trauma to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as many other types of trauma responses, but the most important piece is that trauma starts when we are at a young age. We search for safety, connection, and empowerment and when we aren’t able to get those, we seek ways to find them ourselves, latching onto the first one that works (Shapiro, 2001). The habits or skills that we have been engaging in for so long were once effective in finding those things, but after a while leave us feeling like we can’t catch our breath. Right now, we are going through a collective trauma where we are all experiencing different levels of feeling unsafe, disconnected, and disempowered. All of these feelings trigger those same experiences from childhood, which in turn influence us to respond similarly to try to find safety.

Staying busy is just an example and it may show up differently in your life. Distracting, dissociating, anxiety, and numbing are some other examples. These are overdeveloped skills that are practiced, meaning it’s natural to go to these skills first, especially during a pandemic. The goal isn’t to add more judgment, but to add self-compassion and understanding, as well as offer more effective options in finding safety.

Here are five different options to find safety during this time of uncertainty:

1. Distress Tolerance Kit
Distress tolerance is a fancy term for being able to withstand painful or distressing emotions coined by Marsha Linehan in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT; 2014). The idea behind a distress tolerance kit is to find various sensory items that bring comfort or a sense of safety in order to build confidence that you can get through difficult moments. It’s helpful to prepare this in advance to avoid searching for items while in a state of distress. It’s best to encompass each of the five senses. Some examples include:

  • Touch: a smooth stone, sometimes called a grounding stone, a fidget toy/stress ball, or a soft blanket
  • Smell: a candle, essential oils, lotion
  • Sight: a picture of a place that is calming, a picture of loved ones (including pets), or a movie
  • Sound: a song/playlist, mindfulness app with calming sounds, going out into nature
  • Taste: a candy or mint, herbal tea

You can find items or activities that encompass several at once, such as lotion for touch and smell, or a coloring book for touch and sight. This is a time to really get creative and know what types of sensory items or activities are the most safe and comforting to you.

2. Butterfly Hug
This is a technique used to self-soothe and regulate the nervous system through bi- lateral stimulation (another fancy term for tapping back and forth). Crossing your arms in front of you with your palms facing you, start to alternate tapping at your chest slowly. Notice your breath as you are tapping and observe whatever comes up without judgment. This technique allows for a sense of safety and builds confidence in the self to regulate emotions (Artigas and Jarero, 2010).

3. Finding Safety in the Breath
Our breath is a really good starting point when looking into the body for safety. It sustains us and keeps us alive even when we’re not thinking about it. By focusing in on the breath, we are able to connect to something that is consistently providing for us. Settle in and start to notice your natural breath. Notice where in your body you feel the breath the most. Is it your lungs? Your chest or belly? Maybe the edges of your nostrils? Focus in on this place and let your attention rest there to notice the breath moving in and out. If thoughts come up, that’s okay. We are human and thoughts will always come up. You can gently come back to your breath. If it helps, you can also say to yourself “in, in, in” on the inhale as you notice the breath and “out, out, out” as you exhale continuing to focus on that one part of your body.

4. Find a Safe Body Part
For some of us, our body does not feel like the safest place–especially if we have experienced trauma. Our focus is typically external because going inward might be too painful or scary. If that’s the case for you, I would recommend trying some of the earlier ones and build up to feeling safer in your body and trusting it to provide that sense of comfort. If your body does feel safe or is starting to, this is can be a good starting place to going within for safety. Start by noticing your breath. Begin to scan your body and notice what is present. Again, try doing so without judgment. Try to connect to a body part that feels safe. Breathe into that body part and stay in that sense of safety for as long as you need. When you’re ready, slowly return to the room. You can reflect on your experience and what that was like for you.

5. Reparenting
This concept is focused on an inner child within us whose needs didn’t get met when we were younger, likely related to trauma (Capacchione, 1991). Reparenting is a chance for us to identify the needs of that inner child and meet those needs for ourself. There are several ways to practice reparenting, such as going to bed on time, drinking plenty of water, and other types of self care.

Here are steps to find safety in the moment using reparenting:

1. Identify the emotion or thought. Note that this can be the hardest part–bringing awareness to what you are feeling.
2. Drop the story you’re telling yourself and notice the body sensation. Where do you feel it?
3. If you were to explore that body sensation, could you identify an age to it? This helps to really see the inner child and help understand its needs.
4. Based on the emotion and the age, you may already know the need. If you don’t, you can ask this inner child what it needs. If it is safety, you can bring a hand to your heart and continue repeating the words, “I am safe.” If you aren’t able to identify the need, that’s okay, too. Try those words or “I am loved.” You can test out a few that you feel you want to hear often, but aren’t able to.

Remember that if at any point during these skills you notice becoming activated or feeling overwhelmed, feel free to stop and try a different one. These are listed from an external focus (outside the body) to internal. If your body does not feel like a safe place, start from the beginning. There is no shame in however you find safety. Also–a reminder that progress is not linear. We are all doing the best we can and just because we are engaging in behaviors and feeling emotions we thought we had moved away from, we are in a situation that none of us have ever experienced before & are coping in the best ways we know how. Progress is more a series of loops and curves rather than a straight and narrow path moving forward. This can be an opportunity to generalize skills that we have learned to a new situation, build new skills, and learn to sit with distressing emotions. Either way, know that you are doing enough.

Artigas, L., & Jarero, I. (2010). The butterfly hug. In M. Luber (Ed.), Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Scripted Protocols: Special Populations (pp. 5-7). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Co
Capacchione, L. (1991). Recovery of your inner child. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols,
and procedures (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.