Many individuals who have a trauma history, or experience mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, can experience elevated stress levels. In EMDR and other trauma therapies, creating Safe(r) Place imagery is used to support clients in managing overwhelming feelings or when the nervous system is flooded. In EMDR, this is usually done in the preparation phase, shortly after the clinician takes the client’s history. To create a Safe(r) Place, the clinician usually guides the client through a series of steps to support them in getting a vivid image that creates positive feelings of calm and relaxation in their mind and body. The Safe(r) or Calm Place can then be called up by an individual in times of stress – this can occur both in therapy, and outside of it. Some people prefer not to refer to this imagery by its original term, Safe Place, because safety has been so inaccessible in their lives; therefore the word safe can be triggering, or bring up a lot of complicated feelings. Going forward I will refer to this imagery as “Calm Place”.
Utilizing calming imagery has been found to reduce pain, anxiety, stress, and depression. It has also been found to improve sleep. Putting your mind’s focus on an image that has positive associations causes your mind to have similar responses to actually being in that calm place. Because of the mind-body connection, your body also relaxes – studies have found that in response to calming imagery the participants heart rate and blood pressure lowers, as does the stress hormone, cortisol. I believe that using imagery, while not a cure all, can be an extremely powerful tool; yet so many people seem unaware of how helpful it can be!
How to Create a Calm Place
Creating a Calm Place is beneficial and can be utilized with effect outside of EMDR therapy. Furthermore, you don’t necessarily need a therapist to guide you through the steps, although for some individuals it might be helpful to have the support of a therapist when creating a Calm Place.
If you are interested in trying to create a Calm Place follow these steps:
- Think of a calm place that has no ties to anything stressful in your life. Sometimes people will think of a place they would escape to when something stressful was happening in their life – while such a place may have been essential to their coping, it is important that you not use such a place in this particular exercise because there are neural networks that connect that place with stressful memories. Common imagery includes lakes, beaches, and forests. Sometimes individuals choose a special room in their home as a Calm Place, while others make something up completely- like sitting in a landscape of clouds, or going to a place that only exists in a favourite movie or video game.
- Take a moment and really imagine your Calm Place. Really think of the 5 senses when you are creating this space – what do you see? Hear? Feel (both in your body and on your skin)? What is the temperature like? What do you smell? Taste? Take a moment and really let the Calm Place become as vivid as possible in your mind.
- Begin butterfly tapping. To do butterfly taps simply place your right hand below your left shoulder, and your left hand below your right shoulder. Your arms should be crossed over your chest. Gently tap your hands, alternating left and right. These taps shouldn’t be too fast, but it is important to find a pace that feels right for you.
- Do sets of tapping – do about 6-10 rounds of tapping, and then check in with yourself. Notice how you are feeling. Are you feeling an increase in positive emotions and bodily sensations? If so, continue until you notice little to no change. If negative associations or feelings come in, then begin again. When starting again try to be as specific as possible about the place and experience. Make the Calm Place as vivid as possible, really tuning in to your 5 senses.
- Once you have a strong sense of your Calm Place, and have enjoyed the positive feelings it evokes in your mind and body, then take a minute to come up with a cue word for your Calm Place. You will use this cue word in the future, when you need to call up this imagery. Say the cue word and then begin tapping, allowing yourself to really notice your Calm Place with all 5 senses. Do this 2 times.
- Congratulations, you have created a Calm Place!
If you decide this is a tool you want to use regularly, I encourage you to not just bring it up in times of stress, but try to call it up regularly. Sometimes people find it helps to think of their Calm Place before going to bed. By thinking of your Calm Place regularly you strengthen the neural connections associated with it, making the imagery and its effects stronger.
There are many youtube videos, books, and apps that have guided imagery available. If this is an area worth exploring you may want to take a look at the resources available to you, to see what might be a good fit.
Clare Pentelow is a registered social worker and psychotherapist based in the Kitchener Waterloo area. She is trained in EMDR, and has over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. Clare is passionate about providing therapy that is both compassionate and evidence based.
Carpenter JJ, Hines SH, Lan VM. Guided Imagery for Pain Management in Postoperative Orthopedic Patients: An Integrative Literature Review. J Holist Nurs. 2017 Dec;35(4):342-351. doi: 10.1177/0898010116675462. Epub 2016 Oct 23. PMID: 30208778.
Mahdizadeh, M. J., Tirgari, B., Abadi, O., & Bahaadinbeigy, K. (2019). Guided Imagery: Reducing Anxiety, Depression, and Selected Side Effects Associated With Chemotherapy. Clinical journal of oncology nursing, 23(5), E87–E92. https://doi.org/10.1188/19.CJON.E87-E92
Menzies, V., Lyon, D. E., Elswick, R. K., Jr, McCain, N. L., & Gray, D. P. (2014). Effects of guided imagery on biobehavioral factors in women with fibromyalgia. Journal of behavioral medicine, 37(1), 70–80. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-012-9464-7
Nguyen, J., & Brymer, E. (2018). Nature-Based Guided Imagery as an Intervention for State Anxiety. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1858. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01858
Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic principals, protocols and procedures. The Guilford Press
Skottnik, L., & Linden, D. (2019). Mental Imagery and Brain Regulation-New Links Between Psychotherapy and Neuroscience. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 779. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00779
Yijing, Z., Xiaoping, D., Fang, L., Xiaolu, J., & Bin, W. (2015). The Effects of Guided Imagery on Heart Rate Variability in Simulated Spaceflight Emergency Tasks Performers. BioMed research international, 2015, 687020. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/687020