Compassion-Focused Therapy: Creating a Safe Place Exercise
Today we are going to be talking about an exercise called “Creating a Safe Place.” This isn’t about going to a physical space, but rather it’s about creating imagery of a physical and emotional environment where you feel safe. Maybe some images are already coming to mind: a quiet meadow, a big blanket, eating your favorite meal, etc.
This exercise comes from a technique called compassion-focused therapy which focuses on compassion toward self and others as an essential aspect of well-being. This exercise is great for anyone who’s experienced anxiety or trauma and has a hard time feeling safe in the world. Perhaps it’s hard for you to feel calm or safe regularly. You can take a moment to ask yourself if you often feel anxious, a sense of dread, or the feeling that something bad might be just around the corner. These feelings are not unusual when you have a history of anxiety or trauma, even if that traumatic event happened years ago. Positive imagery and memories are helpful to develop and activate both the bodies’ soothing system and our compassionate minds.
A “soothing system” is a concept within Compassion-Focused Therapy that refers to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for promoting relaxation, emotional regulation, and safety. This soothing system can help counteract the overactivity of the threat system in our bodies (more commonly known as fight or flight) and the competitive system (achievement and comparison). When we can understand what’s going on in our bodies it can be a great first step to cope with the negative effects of trauma and anxiety.
An important note here - this technique is important to use alongside other treatments, like therapy, and not necessarily on its own. Our bodies and minds respond very strongly to imagination and mental imagery. While we can create safe havens to help us relax and process complex emotions, we can also create catastrophic images that perpetuate our worst fears!
The Power of Imagination:
Close your eyes and imagine your favorite meal. Imagine it being placed in front of you. You can smell, touch, and taste it. Focus on the effects of this imagery on your body. How do you feel? Do you notice some saliva? Are you hungry? Does it bring up other memories attached to that meal?
Now, imagine yourself biting into a lemon wedge. How does your body respond? Do you feel your mouth pucker as you imagine the extremely sour taste?
In both of these instances, your brain was able to create imagery based on a prompt, and that gave you a real sensation in your body. In understanding just how powerful imagination can be, it is important to train this imagination like a muscle so that it works for you, and not against you. When thinking of creating a safe space in your mind, we want to make sure that you’re able to go there and feel supported, and not let your imagination run wild and distract you with negative imagery.
In a moment you’ll read about how to create a safe place in your mind. Before you begin It’s recommended that when you are creating a safe place, you create a place that is firmly in your imagination and new to you. Sometimes we feel the need to use a place from our childhood or our home, but past places can be tied to grief and current places can be disrupted.
Are You Ready to Create Your Safe Place? Follow These Steps:
Begin by doing a simple breathing exercise called box breathing. Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, and hold for four seconds again. Do this several times until you feel your body start to relax. This technique tells your body that it can deactivate the fight/flight response, and activate your “soothing” system. If you need some guidance with this, search for "box breathing" on the internet and you'll find a variety of diagrams or videos to aid you in this practice.
Find a place to sit in silence for a while. While seated, adopt a grounded upright position. Relax your shoulders and begin breathing in a soothing rhythm. Begin to feel settled in your mind.
As you begin to feel settled in your body, allow your mind to create a safe image. Perhaps it will begin as a color a feeling, or a few images. There is no right or wrong! Without any judgment, allow these images to flow in your mind. Start to notice a place taking shape for you.
Notice the feeling of safety in your body. Where is that feeling located? In your head? Or in your chest? Allow it to slowly expand, bringing with it the feeling of warmth, safety, and support. You are creating a safe place that will always be there for you.
Allow your safe place to become more vibrant and more focused. Notice the colors, shapes, sounds, or sensations. Notice what you can see. Are there sensations that feel strong? Like the warmth of the sunshine? Or the embrace of a warm blanket?
Immerse yourself in your world and allow it to fully take shape.
Slowly notice the image fading away as you return to the room. Begin to wiggle your fingers and toes and come back fully into the present. Remember that this place will always be there for you.
After completing this exercise, it’s always helpful to spend a short time reflecting. Ask yourself, what did I notice? What came up for me physically or emotionally? Was there any resistance in me when I sought out a safe place? How do I feel about the safe place that I created for myself?
Remember that the more you practice using safe place imagery, the easier it will be for you to return to in moments of stress.
Safe Place Worksheet:
To help your safe place imagery become more concentrated and concrete, try filling out this worksheet. List all the words that come to mind as a response to each category.
In my safe place I…
Another option to help you support your understanding of your safe place is to search for an image or take some time to make a drawing or painting of what you see or experience during this activity.
If you have trouble visualizing images in your mind you can also experiment with an AI text-to-image generator. There are lots of great free options that can help you generate what you are seeing in your mind.
Difficulty Visualizing: If you’re struggling to create a vivid mental image of your safe place, don’t worry! With practice, your safe place will become more prominent. Using your imagination muscle can be tricky; as a first step try to focus more on sensory details. Take some time to describe the sensory experience in as much detail as possible, including the colors you see, sounds you hear, textures you feel, or temperatures you experience.
Intrusive Thoughts During the Safe Place Exercise: It’s very common to experience intrusive or distracting thoughts while creating your safe place. As mentioned, our mind is capable of producing both positive and negative imagery. When this happens you can acknowledge the thoughts that are coming up for you without judgment. You can take a break from the exercise if the thoughts or feelings become too much. When you’re ready, you can gently guide your focus back to your safe place.
I Don’t Know What it Means to Have a Safe Place: I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve never experienced feeling safe and being in a safe place. Seeking support from a mental health professional can be especially beneficial to help you process what comes up for you around this concept of safety, or creating a mentally safe place to return to when feeling anxious. Building a sense of safety can take time. Remember to approach this work with self-compassion, and self-care. If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of creating a safe place, you can start with short, controlled exposures to elements of your safe place. Going back to the safe place worksheet, focus on one sense at a time and take breaks in between. You deserve to feel safe, and with the right support and self-compassion, it’s possible to move towards that goal at your own pace.
If this exercise was helpful for you, there are many therapists here at The Center for Growth who are ready to help you continue to create that safe space.
At TCFG you can schedule directly online with a therapist. If you prefer talking to a therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have six physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.
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