The safe place practice is a helpful strategy that can be used in trauma therapy to support you to develop a sense of safety in your nervous system. Psychological trauma can leave us with a pervasive sense of danger, regardless of whether our current environment is safe or not. There are a range of things that contribute to this felt sense of being unsafe. For many trauma survivors, particularly those who experienced trauma in childhood or what we call developmental trauma, they may have never experienced a truly safe place of their own, so their alarm systems are overactive or hypervigilant as danger is all they know. You can learn more about how trauma effects the nervous system here.
Another factor is the way that trauma memories are processed. The high stress of the traumatic event can impact the way the brain can integrate the experience, leaving the person with fragmented memories or flashbacks. Often, we think of flashbacks as distinct memories that include images, sounds, smells, and feelings that clearly arise from the traumatic event. These types of flashbacks can occur, but what happens more often are somatic or feeling flashbacks, where a trigger from your current environment brings back the emotions, thoughts and sensations that you experienced during the trauma. It can sometimes be hard to recognise those experiences as flashbacks. Often, we will interpret these types of flashbacks as evidence that our current environment is not safe.
If we have been working to develop stability during recovery from trauma and have been able to build a life where we are objectively safe, yet our sense is one where we still feel as though we are in danger, it can be helpful to find ways to work towards a greater sense of safety within ourselves. One way we can do that is through imaginative or visualisation processes.
A popular and effective way to do this is to imagine a space where you are completely safe and protected. It may be a space that you already know, or it may be someplace new. It may be a room, a cave, or a natural place where you feel safe from harm. If any of the spaces that you think of are triggering for you, it may be helpful to imagine a fantasy space like a submarine or spaceship. The important thing is that the space helps you to feel calm and protected.
Once you can imagine your safe place, you can spend some time there, taking in your environment and noticing some of the details. What do the walls look or feel like? How about the floor? Does your safe place have a roof? Are there any furniture or other items that make your safe place feel especially cosy? It may feel safer for there to be someone with you in your safe place, or it may feel better for you to be there alone. Either way, it’s important to remember that this is your safe place. It belongs to you alone, and you can come here whenever you need.
Once you have gotten familiar with your safe space, you can take your attention to your body and notice how it feels to be here. Do you feel different to how you felt before imagining your safe place? Does your body feel calmer in any way? If so, you can spend some time here, doing whatever you need to do while you soak in that sense of calm. If you don’t notice a difference, ask yourself if there is anything else your space might need to feel safer for you. Sometimes, it can be hard to imagine a space that feels truly safe, especially if that is so far from your usual experience. In that case, it may be helpful to think of it as a safer space. You may not feel 100% safe here, but maybe you feel just a little bit safer, and that’s okay. The more time you spend here, the more familiar this sense of safety becomes as your nervous system learns to come out of high alert.
It can be helpful to practice imagining your safe space when you are not feeling overly distressed, as it can be easier to access this sense of calm. By practising this process, you can strengthen your capacity to soothe your nervous system and emotions, making it easier to do so when feeling activated.