The Safe Place
Another approach to mindfulness is through imagery or guided visualization. The safe place exercise helps a client to identify a place that is peaceful and safe for them, real or imagined.
Maria mentioned that she loves the beach, that it could be her safe place. Then she was asked, when you imagine yourself at the beach, what do you see, hear, smell, touch, taste? Once the five senses have been explored, ask what emotions appear as they imagine themselves in that location. Maria said that she just felt a sense of peacefulness.
Maria was then asked if she could feel the peacefulness physically in her body. It’s important to help the client identify a specific location in their body, because then they will understand that the safe place is within, not outside, their body. For Maria, her safe place is not really on the beach, but in her chest. That’s a resource she can take with her and use anytime, whether she’s at the beach or not.
The container is a great exercise for trauma survivors, because it teaches them to contain trauma memories that may be overwhelming, and helps them process one memory at a time when doing trauma work.
- Ask the client to imagine a physical (box, vault, safe, trunk), electronic (USB, DVD), or virtual (digital folder) container. For Maria it was a secret well in a field of flowers.
- Make it clear that the client is the only person who knows about this container, knows its location, and has the key or password to access and secure it.
- Explain that whenever a triggering thought or emotion arises, the client can imagine placing it in their container.
As Maria learned these exercises, she was also taught to reflect on them. Mindfulness reflections are about reflecting back on the experiences and seeing what has been learned.
Maria was asked to choose one of the mindfulness exercises she’s been practicing, and to focus and reflect on it. She chose mindful soccer games. Then she answered four questions.
- What did you notice when you were mindful (playing soccer)?
Maria said that she was able to concentrate better and score more goals. She noticed that she sweated a lot, was out of breath, her heart beat faster, and she had a mild leg cramp.
- What was different about this experience, about playing mindfully vs non-mindfully?
Maria said she doesn’t usually pay attention to sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, or mild leg cramps.
- How does what you learned relate to your symptoms (anxiety, depression, panic, PTSD)?
Maria said, “Some of those things that I noticed when I’m playing soccer, like the sweating, the heart palpitations, or shortness of breath, are actually the same things I feel when I have a panic attack.” She realized that as she was playing soccer she was supposed to sweat, be out of breath when running around, and her heart is supposed to beat faster when exercising. She realized she could experience panic attack symptoms without actually having one.
- How does what you learned relate to your personal life goals?
Maria realized that if she can be more mindful of playing soccer, she can also be more mindful in other areas of her life. It was very important for her to learn to be mindful of her playing, because that’s an enjoyable and safe arena in which she learns the new skills. She can then apply them to less safe or enjoyable areas of her life. And if she learns that mindfulness helps her score more goals, she knows it will also help her achieve other goals.