Lost and Safe
April 27, 2017 8:38 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to cultivate a feeling of physical safety and security (not practical safety tips so much as strategies for emotional self-reassurance?)

[discussion of abuse follows]
For a long long time, I've struggled with forms of anxiety I've found hard to pin down. With social anxiety, I enjoy smalltalk and random interactions, I'm nervous-but-okay with speaking in front of groups, etc. Where I have trouble is once I know somebody a little bit - a new friend or peer, a second or third date, etc. - I become really uncomfortable with showing up again and again. I knew there was something going on with regards to building intimacy, but it didn't seem to necessarily be about judgment/coming across a certain way.

Recently in therapy, I had one of my few genuine epiphany moments of my life - in these situations, I'm actually afraid that somebody is going to harm me, like physically commit a violent act against me. And in fact, this is a theme in all parts of anxiety for me - my anxiety around money or the future or constantly moving/starting over etc. is this fear that at the end of some failure is going to be some kind of violence against me. I guess I should have figured this out earlier, as somebody who had an emotionally abusive childhood with a period of unpredictable physical abuse when I was 5-8, but I didn't really understand how pervasive that embodied fear of unpredictable physical harm could be. I have always taken the demands of my anxiety more literally, if that makes sense.

So! This is all to say that I've isolated this need for me to figure out ways to cultivate a sense of physical safety for myself (and my therapist agrees). I know that, for me, safety is related to certain positions of my body, like hugging myself or firm presssure against my upper shoulderblades. Yoga poses that involve full-body stretching/folding while also stretching out my quads for some reason are very emotional too. Having a sweet kitty who wants to cuddle helps too. But I'd like to continue exploring and identifying new practices, whether they're physical activities (I think a lot of this work is definitely going to happen on the level of embodied memory of trauma) or mantras or rituals or things like that!

Do you have any suggestions for things I could try? I kind of want to try some kind of massage but am afraid I'll just start crying and never stop ha. I wonder if I could engage the people I trust deeply now in some ways too. Any ideas would be lovely. Thank you!!
posted by elephantsvanish to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Being touched in a soothing and pleasurable way (ask for "relaxation massage" rather than "deep tissue" or "sports") in a controlled environment might indeed help you to cultivate a sense of physical safety. A good massage therapist will be prepared for clients to have emotional reactions to treatment and will be nonjudgmental about them. Obviously, they are not actually mental health workers, but a good RMT will stop and let you recover. It might be good to bring a friend along to take you home if you get upset.
posted by praemunire at 8:54 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would try climbing, as it's stretching and also doing something that can pull you up and away from the ground. Plus, there's a rush of accomplishment when you've reached the place you were climbing to!
posted by xingcat at 9:01 AM on April 27, 2017

Best answer: Maybe martial arts could be helpful. I've seen boxing doing wonders for some women I know in a similar predicament. But I think any martial art could build that confidence. I'm partial to karate shoto-kan and aikido (they go in a sort of non-violent direction). Judo is also awesome, lots of contact, could be helpful. Taekwondo and capoeira are more acrobatic and aerial, also great options. Even tai-chi could be great.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 9:30 AM on April 27, 2017

Best answer: I am very frightened/tense with physical touch due to childhood issues and then marriage, and massage has only become possible for me recently through not going to places with "woo" new age stuff and oils etc, just no-frills, just pleasant standard places. Sometimes I just kept headphones with music, and at a recent one, I played an audiobook to keep my mind started enough that I could relax. It also helped to do partial massages (like foot massages) in places with other people, rather than in a room alone.

Swimming is surprisingly full-body sensory. If you can swim outside in a lake or the sea, that's somehow always left me a feeling of being stronger and secure in the world for several days in a way that pool swimming or regular exercise doesn't.

I also just have wireless headphones that I sometimes wear without any music on them so that I can walk around with a sense of a buffer but still be able to hear everything around me. That has been great in difficult crowd settings.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:50 AM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Reminds me of Temple Grandin's climbing into a roll-away bed with the bed still folded up. She went on to invent a Squeeze Machine,
or Hug Machine

2nding Martial Arts classes.

Maybe walk with a stinger or tactical pen. Or pepper spray.
posted by at at 9:57 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One small thing that has helped me is reassuring myself that I have faith in my capacity to survive and cope.
posted by A hidden well at 10:24 AM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A massage therapist friend told me she had a very positive experience with a water massage. They are big machines that you climb into and they use water pressure to give you a massage for 10-15 minutes. She described it as a full-body hug.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 10:46 AM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "I wonder if I could engage the people I trust deeply now in some ways too. "

I feel like this is a good thread to pull! If you have people you trust deeply, then yes, could be great to engage them. Maybe start small, like reading books back to back so that your shoulders are resting against each other and your backs are holding each other up. Or having a friend gently walk on your back. Or what about stuff that is less about physicality but rather predictability? Like hanging out with somebody you trust but having the day be really regimented and just sticking to it, so that it's exactly what you expect it to be? Building up those small experiences over time can be really powerful. I hope you find comfort and security with whatever you do.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Where I have trouble is once I know somebody a little bit - a new friend or peer, a second or third date, etc. - I become really uncomfortable with showing up again and again.

One thing that makes this different is the chance for unexpected outcomes - if you know someone really well you know what to expect, and with strangers initial conversations are often formal or trivial. Whereas with people you know a little there is the chance of "Am I being too casual too soon", "does this person actually remember me (will they stop me halfway through a long spiel and ask 'do I know you?' ", "do they mistakenly think we are ready for more intimate conversation than I am", etc. One way to feel safe in these situations is too prepare yourself with a physical out or a verbal defense. Pulling out your phone and calling a friend is one option ("Sorry, I promised a friend I would call them at this time").
posted by 445supermag at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: these suggestions are fantastic and even reading them makes me feel wonderful <3 <3 <3

re: martial arts suggestion, I've thought about this a bit over the years, but never in the framework of healing! I think aikido would be a great fit -- there's an aikido place near my mom and sister's apartment and we've all noticed how they behave like a close-knit family that happens to tumble around all over the place. Seems like a good scene.

iamkimiam: I appreciate the way you framed this a lot. I started going on a weekly Saturday morning hike with a friend and have found, as you say, the predictability of it to be incredibly fulfilling and good. I'll keep thinking in those terms :) Sadly I don't feel like I can ask anybody in my life for the back-to-back reading thing, even though that sounds incredibly wonderful -- I have a hard time feeling like platonic touch is safe/acceptable/non-shameful, even though I would love to have it more often, and I don't have a partner. But a goal perhaps. I will keep thinking in terms of little routines in any case.
posted by elephantsvanish at 12:14 PM on April 27, 2017

Response by poster: and 445supermag: Yeah, the thing about unexpected outcomes is 100% spot in. It's almost eerie how well these dynamics fit together/converge for me on the fear of violence stuff. But it's a really powerful thing to realize. In college I used to get really uncomfortable with those amorphous hangout days where everyone is kind of at each other's house, not because I didn't like the time with people but because of the weird structure to it all. This helps explain that really well.. but yeah prepared outs, I'll keep that in mind!
posted by elephantsvanish at 12:22 PM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I remind myself that a number of other people also feel social anxiety. I have exceptional faking-it skills and people literally will not believe I have social anxiety, so I try to hold it in my thoughts that others are the same way. I keep in mind that people want to be liked.

Walking with confidence - a self-assured stride, confident posture is safer and makes you feel better. Before you go out, stand like Superwoman.

Remember that random strangers on the Internet are rooting for you. We are.
posted by theora55 at 12:36 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi,
I'm a massage therapist. It's okay to cry (or have a panic attack, or fall asleep, or rant about your shitty day etc) during your massage. It happens more often than you might expect, and we are trained in school to deal with it.

That said, people are people and everyone has a different level of comfort with other people's emotions. It could be a good idea to go in for a few short sessions, say just hands and feet for a half hour for example, so you feel comfortable with them (or alternatively go somewhere where you never intend to return)

I know a few massage therapists working on formally combining mental health and massage- people who work with stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, muscle memory/holding patterns, and so on. It's a bit of a grey area as mental wellness approaches can veer dangerously close to therapy and We Can't Do That, but the connection between mind and body is undeniably real and important.

At any rate, if you live in a moderately sized metropolis you could probably find someone who specialises in this kind of thing with a bit of googling and bio-reading and recommendation hunting. I believe there are also some adjunct varieties of bodywork that target mind-body wellness, but are less likely to have registered practitioners.

At the end of the day, though, you can always tell the person that you've been very stressed lately and might cry as a heads up. Any half-decent massage therapist should be more than accommodating.

Outside of massage, i suspect a lot of run-of-the-mill anxiety and stress relief approaches are going to help. Whether you're afraid of physical harm or afraid of emotional stuff, the basic chemical activity regulating fear/arousal is the same and in theory could be addressed by the same mechanisms. If your parasympathetic nervous system is active, you should feel safe.

So, to get that rest 'n digest up and running:

I read a study indicating that feeling unpleasantly cold can trigger anxious and isolated sensations. Try staying comfortably warm. I keep a hot water bottle or similar readily accessible at all times for soothing cuddles.Also think saunas and whirlpools.

Another way to get grounded in the present is to smell a scent that immediately makes you feel safe. Citrus does it for me.

Weighted blankets or garments have a soothing effect on some folks.

Restorative yoga might work for you.

Float tanks are a thing, they might do something for you.

Breathing from the diaphragm is a big one; shallow breathing is both stressful and tightens and hurts your neck, which is also stressful.

Digging in the dirt with bare hands and maybe planting something is pretty great for feeling safe and connected. I read some other studies indicating that spending time in nature surroundings also has this effect.

There is a neat therapy with horses that some people do, where the horses act like living bio-feedback machines so you can better notice and change your internal stuff when it gets all whirly. And then you can take those techniques out into the world. I find horses (and cows) incredibly soothing creatures to be around if you can spend some time with them.

Mindfulness meditation is the big go-to for a lot of people.

Exercise in general, maybe something fast paced and focused for the "zone" effect (tennis?) Maybe, eventually, competitive contact sports so you can experience safe physical aggression & self defense and it being ok... I'm thinking, I dunno, basketball? Touch football?

Oh, and keep your blood sugar stable, it makes a world of difference.

I got at least some of this stuff from a book called "Feeling Loved" by Jeanne Segal. I thought it was pretty good, maybe it could be useful to you.

Best of luck.
posted by windykites at 7:50 PM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is very much a sensation that I've felt in my life and some of the descriptions in this thread articulated things I've had trouble putting my finger on. I'm following and am taking some of the advice to heart. Here are some of the things I have cultivated to manage this lost feeling:

Exercise. I try to get my body moving at least a little bit, even if it's only 5 minutes of jump rope or 10 cat-cows or 10 bird-dogs on each side, just ONE of those activities for a few minutes can often be enough to help me "reset." Also, as I've continued in my personal training, I can actually see and feel myself getting stronger and I find this to be really satisfying and grounding.

For a long time when I was in the throes of worrying about my physical safety, I would walk along saying to myself in my head: my body is strong, my body is healthy, over and over. I also use Thich Naht Hanh's mantra: I have arrived [inside my own body, is the way I think of it] I am home. I have arrived; I am home.

I almost always sit with my back to a wall. I used to feel weird about asserting my needs around that with people, but now I just see that it makes so much of a difference in terms of how comfortable I am at any given occasion that I just say that I would prefer to sit on that side and no one has ever been rude about it. I also set up my office and my home so that I can do that.

Connecting with the natural world. Camping, sleeping outside in a tent, sitting on the ground, touching the ground and the grass, standing with my bare feet in the river even if it's freezing, burying my legs in sand, taking care of my plants and sprouts. In tandem with this - the poetry of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.

These are a few of mine -- if I think of any more specifics, I'll post again. Thanks for asking this question. Be well.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:44 AM on April 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

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