As a child, during times of distress, did you seek comfort in a stuffed animal, a lullaby, an imaginary friend, a secret hiding place or good luck charm? Most of us did in one fashion or another. Psychologists call these objects, sounds and places “safety signals,” meaning they afford us a sense of solace when anxious or frightened.
Researchers have discovered that using this sort of signal activates a neural pathway in the brain associated with feelings of emotional safety. While it is sometimes helpful to tackle sources of fear head-on, this may be counterproductive when coping with chronic anxiety. A safety signal, by contrast, puts the focus on emotional comfort and establishing a “safe place.”
The fears and uncertainties of the COVID pandemic have made anxiety increasingly widespread and, in many cases, disruptive to wellbeing. Resurrecting an old safety signal or creating a new one provides is a good way to dial down the angst. Here’s how to do it:
- Recollect: If you remember a particular safety signal that you still have access to or can resurrect in some fashion, that’s a good place to start.
- Create: If you can’t resurrect a prior safety signal, search for a new one. A safety signal can be a sound (music, chime, bird songs, etc.), an object (stone, photo, religious symbol, etc.) or a place (at home or in nature). The key is that this signal, whatever it is, creates a sense of comfort, calm or emotional safety.
- Connect: In creating a new safety signal, sometimes it helps to remember one from your childhood and mentally connect it with a new one you create. For example, if your parents sang you to sleep with a lullaby, and your new safety signal is a polished stone, hold the stone in your hand while recalling the lullaby in your mind or playing it out loud.
- Take it along: Often, the most useful safety signals are those we can take with us and use on the fly whenever we feel anxious or stressed. For example, someone might carry a photo of a beloved person whose countenance creates a sense of comfort or calm.
Using a safety signal is not a gimmick or a crutch. It is a tangible way to open up a neural pathway in the brain that eases anxiety and amplifies inner calm. Consider giving it a try.