Updated: Mar 2, 2019
When I was 11, I spent my afternoons and summer days in a land of adventure. Usually armed with a book, I would take off from my home in central Missouri and climb over a mountain. I’d sidestep exotic reptiles and other such skittish critters on my journey. Giant mammals would stare at the funny human walking by.
I would pass an ancient dwelling and descend into a jungle, avoiding scaly fingers that would reach out to cut me, and swinging legs that would kick at my head. I knew I was almost to my destination when the waterfall grew louder and I felt the ocean mist on my face.
Once I survived the treacherous attacks, I’d arrive at the crystal falls that would sparkle and shine. When the weather had been just right, there would be a dry spot on top of my waterfall waiting for me to climb to it. Sometimes I’d go in a different direction in the jungle, and find a warm beach with sand made of gold and diamonds. Finally in a safe place, I would relax and rest while I read my book, examined coral, or watched the waves go by.
As you may have imagined, the land in Mid-Missouri wasn’t really a jungle, and the water wasn’t really an ocean. Actually, my trip was over a hilly pasture where cattle would chew their cuds and stare at me walking by. Garden snakes would dart out of my path. At the bottom of the hill I’d pass my family’s 200-year-old barn. Then I’d walk through thick Missouri woods with thorny bushes that would grab my clothes, and low tree branches that would sway from the wind or jerk from playful squirrels jumping from tree to tree.
I would emerge from the bushes and arrive at a local stream, sometimes dried up from drought and sometimes rushing with rainwater. When it had rained recently, there was a small waterfall that seemed huge to me, and in the opposite direction, a tiny splotch of beach barely big enough for two. The coral was in the form of fossils in the thousands of rocks that made up the creek bed, and tiny pebbles of various colors sparkled in the sunlight.
For me, it was a very real and perfect sprawling paradise. To this day, although I’ve been to actual oceans, snorkeled among living reefs, and walked through real jungles, this creek is still my favorite destination on Earth.
That’s probably because it’s safe, comfortable, and always made me feel at peace. The memory of it was etched in my brain through a circuit of neural pathways (patterns of thinking) that still lead me to relaxed happiness, along with an occasional taste for adventure. No matter what had happened in my day, my creek was always there, patient and calmly waiting.
A Safe Place
In mental health, we call this a “safe place” or “happy place.” Safe places can be real, like mine, or imaginary. The visualization, of a place that’s real or not, will lead to the same happy feelings in the brain.
I once had a client design a safe place made of chocolate waterfalls and lollipop trees. Yours can be made of candy too, or it can be taking a bubble bath, or the inside of a warm blanket. Finding or designing your own safe place is sometimes one of the early techniques I use with clients in PTSD therapy. The process of creating is itself healing and expressive, and at the end you’ll have a visual representation that will help you feel safer and free.
The Stress Response
Would you like to know why safe places work for our brains? Let’s explore that a bit. It might help you make better use of yours. In the years since my childhood, I’ve learned that my stream had an official name -- Hiller’s Creek. Hiller’s Creek really was part of a shallow ocean billions of years ago. And millions of years after that, some of our human ancestors lived on or near creeks, including mine, and in caves like those found in Missouri and around the world.
In these early days, humans were focused on literal everyday survival. They had to be careful not to fall off a cliff, get eaten by a bear, or bitten by a snake. Those lineages who survived long enough developed a survival trait called the stress response, or fight-or-flight system. This response would help early humans be on alert for danger. If something potentially dangerous happened they would experience a release of adrenaline and other chemicals that would give them the strength and alertness to fight the bear, run from the bison, freeze at the edge of a cliff, call for help, or jump over the snake.
Today we still have that stress response. However, most of us do not face dangerous situations on a daily basis (although I did jump at a few snakes on my mountain). We have smaller, daily stressful events like a big test coming up, a critical boss, or an argument with a family member. Although these situations are typically physically safe, we still get the same release of adrenaline and other chemicals that our ancestors did for the bison. This can make us more alert, on edge, anxious, and irritable.
Unfortunately, those results are not usually good for our everyday lives, because there are no bears to fight or run from. In these circumstances, since we don’t use this energy to fight off a bear, these chemicals often just stay around and linger in our bodies, making us grumpy and giving us high blood pressure.
For those of you who’ve gone through a recent trauma, or may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), your stress response system is even more sensitive than the typical human’s. General anxiety conditions, social phobia, and other struggles can cause this as well.
The safe place exercise and other creative calming techniques will send the message to your brain that you don’t need the services of the stress response right now - that you’re out of the jungle and arrived at the creek.
Practicing relaxation techniques at calm times will help train your brain that you’re not always in danger, and it can take a break. Strangely enough, it may even help you stay calm and more helpful in an actually dangerous situation.
If you live in Missouri (where Jennie can provide telehealth or in-person therapy) and would like to learn more about calming your stress response and other symptoms