In times like these, it is normal to sometimes feel anxious and worried. Fear is a natural response to danger, and it is designed to keep us safe by triggering the flight, fight or freeze response. Yet it is not healthy nor helpful to feel anxious and stressed over a longer period of time when you are not in a life-threatening situation yourself. Anxiety and stress wear out your body and mind and can produce insomnia, dark moods, and tensions in the body. On top of this, they can make you feel helpless and apathetic which can lead to feelings of depression and burnout over time. Therefore, it is important to know how to cultivate a feeling of safety and strength in your mind.
It is not enough to accept difficult feelings
In mindfulness we often teach that it is important to be with what is there and to allow any kind of feelings to be present, cradled in awareness. However, the mind is actually like a garden. It needs not only to be witnessed, but also to be actively cultivated. If you leave it unattended, it will grow all kinds of unwanted weeds. Weeds need to be pulled out and new seeds need to be planted in your brain, just like we need to grow muscles if we want to be physically strong.
Neuroscience has identified safety, satisfaction, and connection as the three basic human needs. When these needs are met, we feel safe, content and loved. When they are not met, we feel anxious, worried, stressed (the safety system), frustrated, driven, craving (the satisfaction system), rejected, unworthy or lonely (the connection system). Positive neuroplasticity is a method that teaches you to cultivate inner strengths, by repeatedly taking in positive experiences in those areas. The good news is that you can learn to feel safe even in unsafe times.
You can notice or call up a feeling of safety in your mind
So how can you cultivate a feeling of safety and strength? There are numerous small opportunities in a day when you can tap into a feeling of safety. Sometimes it is already present in your awareness such as a feeling of cosiness when you take a warm bath or crawl under your blankets at night. In such moments it is important to become more consciously aware of it and explore how safety feels like. What do you feel in your body when you feel safe? Is it a feeling of warmth, relaxation or heaviness? Does your posture change? Which emotions are present? Is it relief or calm or maybe just the absence of fear? What kind of mood are you in?
You can also call up feelings of safety, for example, by imagining yourself in a safe place where you feel protected or recalling a situation where you were strong, where you stood up for yourself or someone else. If visualisation supports you you could call up the image of a mountain and tap into the feeling of sitting, grounded like a mountain, perhaps using a guided mountain meditation. There are no limits to the creativity in your mind. It’s important to remember that in the beginning, it requires a bit effort to stay present with the experience and to noticing, enriching, and absorbing it. You can practice this method, developed by neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson, with my meditation of feeling strong.
Taking in repeatedly small experiences of safety can make you stronger over time
As you go through your day don’t forget that even small feelings of safety taken in over the course of your day can flip your mood if you take the time to notice them and fully take them in. Even neutral feelings such as the absence of pain, anger, or fear are in fact already positive feelings when you think about it. On a scale from 0 to 10 there are so many moments of plus 1 or 2 that pass unnoticed while we are very much aware of the minus 1 or 2 and allow them to increase in our mind. So why not use this process for the positive experiences? When you become aware of a tiny positive feeling, such as feeling protected, strong, or safe, take a moment to notice it, feel it in your body, make it become bigger in your mind, and keep your attention on it for a dozen seconds. It might sound silly, but neuroscience shows that by taking in the good through those little moments you are installing inner strengths in your brain. So by taking in several moments of safety during your day those states of safety will grow into traits over time. In other words: by repeatedly taking in feelings of strengths and safety you will BECOME stronger. This will help you to stay strong inside when the world is flagging red. And it is so much needed in these times of change and uncertainty.