As one of the best therapies for trauma, depression, and anxiety, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be highly effective in just a matter of weeks. However, there are some challenges that therapists must address.
While EMDR relies on bilateral stimulation for revisiting traumatic memories and reprocessing them, it also teaches the client techniques to relax and feel calm. This technique is often referred to as ‘safe place’ or ‘calm place.’
It’s part of the second phase of EMDR, which is preparation. In this phase, the client prepares for the upcoming phases and learns techniques to cope with them well.
How Does Safe Place Technique Work?
It’s essentially a grounding exercise that helps the person manage agonizing memories of trauma, grief, stress, or anxiety. The idea behind it is to distract the person and bring them into the present via an imaginary safe place.
It involves the client visualizing a place they feel safe and happy in their mind, with the help of their therapist initially. This safe place doesn’t even have to be a real one. One can visualize a hypothetical place that has elements that make the person feel safe and calm.
This safe place can be a sanctuary where the person can go every time they feel stressed or emotional.
During the EMDR session, the therapist will guide you step by step for visualizing this place. It’s a little different from just visualizing it because you will also involve almost all your senses like touching, smelling, and hearing.
Of course, the therapist can only give instructions, but as a client, half the work is yours. So you must pay attention and think of a place or situation where you really do feel safe. This obviously varies from person to person, but here are some examples for your understanding:
- Your parents home where you grew up
- A wide field covered with grass and flowers
- A beautiful white sand beach
- In your home with your partner or kids on a Sunday
- A camp with fire out in the woods
This technique also involves the use of bilateral stimulation (BLS), like eye movement or butterfly hug.
The guide for EMDR from the originator of the therapy, Francine Shapiro, describes a detailed Safe Place protocol. Therapists must adhere to those protocols and implement them using their own words.
How to Develop a Safe Place in EMDR?
During EMDR therapy, whether in-person or online, it’s the therapist’s job to help the client develop their safe space. So they’ll use their words or a pre-written script to help guide you in imagining the place and really feeling your presence there.
As a client, this is also your learning moment, as you should try to understand and remember the steps. These will come in handy later on as and when you’re faced with a stressful or highly emotional situation.
More importantly, if you’re conducting EMDR by yourself with the help of a tool, you’ll probably be guided by the tool by a prerecorded script. However, if one is not there, you can record yourself with the instructions for the process and play it for yourself when it’s time for the therapy, or really anytime you feel like you need it.
It’s also important to calm yourself physically as well, so this may be combined with some breathing exercise beforehand.
EMDR Safe Place Script Example
Whether you’re the therapist or the client, there are scripts you can use for developing a safe place during and after EMDR. There are several stages of the Safe Place protocol. Here’s an example script courtesy of EMDR Counseling Associates:
“I’d like you to think about some place you have been or imagine being that feels very calm or safe. Perhaps being on the beach or sitting by a mountain stream. What image represents your place? Describe what you see.”
Emotions and Sensations
“As you think of that calm/safe place, what emotions are you experiencing?” What sensations do you have in your body?”
“Focus on your calm/safe place–its sights, sounds, smells, and sensations. Tell me more about what you are experiencing.”
“Bring up the image of this place. Concentrate on where you feel the pleasant sensations in your body and allow yourself to enjoy them. Concentrate on those sensations and follow my fingers. (4-8 slow BLS) “What are you noticing now?”
If positive “Focus on that. (BLS) What do you notice now?”
If negative, redirect to identify another calm place or consider some other self-soothing strategy such as a container, mindfulness, or a breathing exercise. Ask the client to put any negative intrusions into a container or off to the side.
“Is there a word or phrase that represents your safe place? Think of it and notice the positive feelings and sensations you have when you think of that word. Concentrate on those sensations and the word/phrase and follow my fingers (4-8 BLS).
How do you feel now?” Repeat and enhance positive feelings with BLS several times.
“Now I’d like you to say that word and notice how you feel.”
Cuing with Disturbance
“Now imagine a minor annoyance (Subjective Units of Disturbance or SUD 1-2) and notice how you feel. Bring up that word and notice any shifts in your body. What did you notice?”
Self-Cuing with Disturbance
“I’d like you to think of another mildly annoying incident (SUD 2-3), notice how you feel, then bring up that word by yourself, especially noticing any changes in your body when you focus on your cue word.”
Using the calm place technique can help the client overcome emotions, stress, and physical sensations during EMDR when they revisit their trauma. While EMDR doesn’t focus too much on traumatic memories, the reprocessing stage does involve remembering the event that caused it.
This technique isn’t just limited to the therapy session. One can use it afterwards as well whenever they get triggered or feel stress and anxiety, in general.
It won’t even take long, and you’ll feel much better.