The experience of existing in a global pandemic means our minds have been aware of unique concerns for our safety for almost a year. Then, as events unfolded at the US Capitol on Wednesday, it layered yet another barrage of images and messages. Add to that the other times of global and national unrest throughout 2020, any personal worries, and many of us find ourselves managing an uncommonly heavy pile of mental threats — all at the same time. That’s a lot to handle.
As human beings, we have a basic need to both be safe and feel safe. Even at times when we may be physically safe, our minds may not feel that way. And, when our minds don’t feel safe it is hard to do basic day-to-day life well, much less excel or thrive. In these difficult times, when safety threat piles upon safety threat, it is essential that we take even more care to attend to our psychological well-being. We may not be able to control the world around us, but we can take steps to help the world within us.
Tips for Increasing Psychological Safety
Safety of Routine: Anytime the world feels like it’s turned upside down, it can be tempting to depart from our normal routines. And, while taking breaks to collect yourself or rejuvenate can be helpful, we must remember that our minds and bodies like predictability. As soon as you are able, get back to your regular bedtime and wake up routines, hygiene practices, exercise, eating patterns, conversations with your normal support people, and anything else that makes your mind or body say, “Oh, yes. I recognize that.” Familiarity supports our psychological safety.
Environmental Safety: The extent to which someone can have environmental safety has a great deal to do with economic status, privilege, and available resources. With that said, to the degree that you are able, increase your sense of physical safety and physical comfort. Be with people who are supportive rather than divisive or unkind. Make your living environment comfortable in terms of temperature, aesthetics, and creature comforts. Be okay with staying in if that feels better, as long as you don’t remain isolated. Lock doors, turn on lights, read a good book, watch an uplifting show. Don’t underestimate the power of small gestures to tell your mind, “I’ve got you. We’re safe here.”
Information Safety: Here’s my mental health public service announcement. There is no prize for being the most well-informed human on the planet. Unless you are in immediate danger, there is no need to watch the news constantly, particularly as events are unfolding, uncertain, and speculative. If you are physically safe and do not need the latest update on a crisis, you may be psychologically safer to do a once-a-day check-in of the headlines. The same goes for processing crises with others. Our minds benefit from debriefing and feeling supported, they do not benefit from obsessing.
Lack of Change Safety: This one is a bit of a mouthful but let’s see if we can unpack it. As an example, in the coming year it is expected that 300,000 to 500,000 less babies will be born than is typical. The same thing happened during the recession in the late 2000’s and during the 1918 Spanish Flu. While that may seem surprising given all the time people have had together with little else to do, the reality is that people often avoid major changes or life decisions during times of instability in order to feel safer or make life more predictable. Unless you want or must make major life decisions during these difficult days, it is more than okay to put them off for a bit. Keeping our brains from having to manage one more new thing can be a great gift to our psychological safety.
We must remember that the constant undercurrent of the COVID crisis means that any additional concerns will be just that — additional. More than we are used to. It is not weakness to occasionally feeling overwhelmed by that. But, in those times, if we stay consistent with our routines, create comforting, safe environments, limit our crisis information intake, and avoid adding new stressors as possible, it can help increase our feelings of psychological safety. Take care of the safety within when the safety outside feels uncertain. One day it will match up again.