Life can be stressful for anyone, but for people dealing with the negative effects of trauma on top of everyday life, elevated stress levels can be much more common. One course of treatment for experiencing a more positive and peaceful life after trauma is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a methodology originated by Francine Shapiro. It pairs specific protocols with bilateral stimulation—back-and-forth eye movements, alternating tones delivered through headphones, and/or alternating tactile stimulation such as vibrations delivered through hand-held pulsers. Part of the eight-phase EMDR protocol includes teaching the person in therapy a relaxation technique to recall when needed.
One of the most common relaxation techniques for EMDR is known as “safe place,” also referred to as “calm place.” This technique is part of the second phase of EMDR known as “preparation.” Prior to this phase, the person’s history is taken, assessments are performed to determine if EMDR is appropriate, and a treatment plan is prepared. This matters because before a counselor proceeds with EMDR, a person must be assessed for physical health, support system, and any tendency to dissociate. Therefore, it is imperative that all portions of EMDR protocols are performed only by a trained, qualified EMDR clinician.
“Safe place” may be thought of as an emotional sanctuary where a person can internally go to recover stability when feeling stressed. Once the person has successfully learned to perform “safe place,” it is used in the reprocessing phase or to close a session. It is also useful in one’s everyday life between sessions when a person feels stress or a disturbance rising to a point they need to take out and use a coping tool from their internal toolbox.
‘Safe Place’ Protocol in EMDR
When “safe place” is taught to a person preparing for EMDR, the counselor will guide the person through the following steps shared by Shapiro (2001):
“Safe place” may be thought of as an emotional sanctuary where a person can internally go to recover stability when feeling stressed.
- The person is asked to picture an image of a place that generates feelings of calm and safety.
- The person is asked to focus on the physical sensations and emotions that are conjured while imagining the “safe place.”
- The counselor encourages a sense of security and may add soothing tones, such as ocean waves, to enhance the effect.
- While the person concentrates on the image, sensations, and emotions, sets of eye movements or other bilateral stimulation may be included to “install,” or strengthen, the “safe place.”
- The person is asked to think of a word to associate with the “safe place” and add this to the calm, safe image and sensations. Sets of bilateral stimulation are added.
- The person is asked to self-cue the image and feelings.
- The person is asked to think of a minor annoyance and its accompanying emotions. The counselor then guides the person through the exercise until the undesired emotions melt away.
- The person is asked to think of another disturbance and follow the exercise without the counselor’s assistance to ensure the person can perform the exercise unassisted.
The person should be instructed to practice “safe place” daily by retrieving the positive image, emotions, and sensations via the cue word. People can then use “safe place” to relax and reduce stress any time needed. Shapiro believes people preparing to be treated with EMDR can benefit not only the “safe place” visualization but also from listening to guided visualizations such as those included in Letting Go of Stress (Miller, 2014), as these may increase the the effectiveness of “safe place” as a means of self-control.
While “safe place” for EMDR should be taught by a qualified clinician, anyone can access guided meditation/visualization CDs and podcasts to help to manage stress, fall asleep at bedtime, and promote a positive self-image. These materials may be found for little or no cost through public libraries, iTunes, and online resources. Comments below sharing your favorite guided visualization/meditation resources are welcome.
- Miller, E. (2014). Letting go of stress. San Anselmo, CA: Halpern Inner Peace Music.
- Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (2nd). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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