by Elizabeth Barrette
Sometimes people have trouble knowing whether they are really safe. This can happen with hypervigilance, anxiety, and various other issues. It's particularly common for war veterans, survivors of abuse, and other people who have experienced traumatic events. People may adapt to a dangerous situation and then have difficulty readapting to an improved situation later. In such cases, it may help to make a deliberate study of the current environment to relearn what safety is like. By paying attention to the ordinary, everyday things it may be possible to coax the mind and body into relaxing more by recognizing the security.
Know yourself and what works for you. Some people find that talking makes them feel better, others worse. The same is true for tracking things like mood or safety.
Senses can become attuned to danger. Once heightened, it may be difficult to tone them down again. This affects people with PTSD, sensory processing disorder, and other conditions. Sometimes it helps to create a 'covering' stimulus such as white noise. However, another useful technique is simply learning the normal input in a safe place. That helps tune out sensations that are variable but harmless. When you notice something, it's okay to go and check it out; verify that it's not a threat and make a point of telling yourself, "It's okay, that noise was just a branch scraping the window. I'm safe here." Think of things that sometimes startle you but are actually innocuous, so you can learn to ignore them. The human body does have a routine for ignoring repeat stimulation that is not significant to survival; sometimes it just needs help to activate habituation.
1) What are some everyday sights where you live or work? (shadows moving along a wall, squirrels running outside, a light that flickers, etc.)
2) What are some typical sounds where you live or work? (wheezy heater, squeaky door, birds singing, music from neighbors, train whistle, etc.)
3) What are some normal tactile effects where you live or work? (loose floorboard, cupboard that shakes when a truck goes by, saggy chair, etc.)
4) What are some ordinary smells where you live or work? (cut grass, burnt grease, soap, rain on pavement, etc.)
5) What are some common foods that you or others eat? (pizza, rice, hamburgers, soup, chips, fruit, candy, etc.)
6) Are there other things that bother you but are really harmless?
Best and Worst
Life has ups and downs. Usually these vary within a moderate range: pretty good days to rather crummy days. Occasionally there is a terrific day or a horrible day. Some conditions such as PTSD and depression tilt the balance toward bad days. Others such as anxiety shift the perception so that a day can seem bad even if it had few or no bad things happening in it. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself that you have survived worse things and that good things can still happen. If you look at the best and worst things that are happening to you over time, you can identify that you are in a safer situation now than you used to be -- or maybe notice things that you want to improve.
1) What is the best thing that happened to you today?
2) Can you think of any practical step(s) you could take to make good things like this happen more often?
3) What is the worst thing that happened to you today?
4) Can you think of any practical step(s) you could take to make bad things like this happen less often?
5) Did anything else stand out that happened today? Why?
People have a lot to do with each other's feelings. Supportive folks can help you feel better, or at least not actively make you feel worse. Unsupportive folks can drag you right down. So if you're struggling, it helps to surround yourself with the best people you can, and try to avoid the problematic ones, creating a healthier community. Sometimes helping other people can make you feel better, too.
1) Did anyone yell at you or say mean things today?
2) Did anyone say something nice to you?
3) Did anyone hurt you, or try to, or threaten to hurt you today?
4) Did you hurt yourself, or think about it?
5) Did you get any hugs or other pleasant touches today?
6) What was a way that you treated yourself gently?
7) Did you ask for help and get it today?
8) What things did anyone do to help you?
9) How did you help anyone else?
10) What did you do to take good care of yourself?
11) Who are some people you can call if you need help?
12) Are there other interactions with people that concern you? Write down those questions so you can check whether good or bad things are happening to you in that regard.
Coping skills are the techniques and processes that people use to soothe themselves when something bothers them. Different things work for different people. Deep breathing, knitting, yoga, worry stones, and positive affirmations are just a few examples. It helps to identify a set of things that help you feel better under stress. To do that, you need to try various methods and then note which ones do more for you. Then when you feel upset, you can remind yourself, "I am not stuck with this feeling. I can do things to cope with or change it."
1) Did anything make you feel unsafe today?
2) Did it turn out to be a present danger, or something that seemed alarming but was harmless on closer examination?
3) What coping skill(s) did you try to comfort yourself?
4) Did that help completely, a lot, some, a little, or not at all?
5) Did you feel safe at some time today?
6) If you felt safe, what were you doing at the time?
7) Could you do that, or something similar, to soothe yourself when you get upset?
8) Did you use more positive or negative coping skills today?
9) Can you think of any practical steps you could take to move toward more positive coping skills?
10) Do you have other concerns about coping skills? Write down those questions so you can check them.
The subjective and objective experience of safety and danger can be mapped on a spectrum, separately or together, in much the same way that a high/low mood can be mapped. This may assist in figuring out what helps someone to feel or be more secure. A safe environment will rarely rise above 5, and most of those higher scores will be environmental (such as a storm warning) rather than human causes. Likewise a safe environment has safety equipment such as emotional and physical first aid kits, blankets, flashlight, weather radio, fire extinguisher, etc. to cope with challenges when they arrive. You may need to remind yourself, "I am physically safe here, even though I don't feel secure right now," or "Even if something bad happens, I have the tools to deal with it."
1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 10
1 = Perfectly safe, both being and feeling secure.
2 = Mostly safe.
3 = Safe in practice, but still having difficulty relaxing.
4 = So-so security.
5 = Feeling uneasy, questioning practical safety.
6 = Potential threat(s) made or otherwise identified.
7 = Witnessed active hazards.
8 = Saw someone else hurt.
9 = Actual physical or emotional harm happened to self.
10 = Serious physical or emotional injury occurred to self.
Permission is granted to copy this worksheet for personal or therapeutic use as long as the byline remains intact.
This workbook on overcoming trauma has a chapter about safety.