Imagine you’re on a road trip and you end up on a different side of town. Nothing looks familiar. You’re feeling lost, because you’re not quite sure which exit to take on the highway. It’s getting really late, and the thing you want the most is to get home safely.
Thankfully, you manage to get cellphone service and can use your GPS. You don’t know what roads to take, but you know you’ll somehow get to your destination.
When we’re in crisis, having a safety plan is like having a map that can help us navigate the bumpy roads of a really tough moment. A safety plan is a prioritized list of coping strategies and sources of support, made by you and for you, for when you are having unsafe thoughts or urges.
There are a total of six steps to creating a safety plan, which you can learn more about here, but these 10 things will help guide you when creating your own.
1. When you’re feeling safe, plan for more safety. You’ve gotten through every hard day in your life up until now and that means you’re able to move forward in your own way. After a moment of crisis, and you finally feel like you’re able to put your thoughts together, that’s when creating a safety plan would be a good idea.
2. If you feel unsafe, remember that your thoughts aren’t necessarily dangerous. Thoughts will always come and go, but it’s how you respond to them that really matters.
3. Self-awareness is your superpower. Only you know what it’s like to walk in your shoes, so getting to know yourself more will pay off. Instead of rushing to get rid of an annoying thought or overwhelming urge; stop, and try to ask yourself a curious and open-ended question like, “What is hurting me right now?”
4. Coping strategies do more than just help us chill. Coping strategies are things you can do on your own to help you feel a little better in the moment. Listening to music or learning how to play it; taking a walk or playing a sport; coloring or journaling; turning to these activities and hobbies during difficult times can help you cope. Having a few of these in your pocket during times of crisis helps remind you to be present, and helps you feel better.
5. It’s your safety plan, but you don’t have to do it alone. If you’re working with a therapist, have a trusted friend, or a leader that you look up to – like a teacher or a coach – you can briefly explain the unsafe thoughts you sometimes experience and kindly ask them, “Can I turn to you when I need to remember to stay safe or use my safety plan?”
6. If it’s out of sight, it’s more likely to be out of mind. Having items nearby that can be used to harm yourself when you are in crisis can be dangerous. Try to identify these items and ways to safely remove them, so that you can create a safer environment for yourself. And if you’re uncomfortable doing it alone, reach out to friends and family for support.
7. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you feel like your safety plan isn’t good enough or that it doesn’t cover everything, that’s perfectly fine. What you want is a flexible guide to help you stay safe in the moment. Maybe the first time you use your safety plan you’ll realize that you’d rather listen to a different type of music than what you have listed, or that you’d rather reach out to someone else for a healthy distraction; you can always edit your safety plan.
8. The format of your safety plan matters. You can choose to write your safety plan with a pen and paper or type it all up electronically here. What’s most important is having it nearby and easily accessible. You want to keep your safety plan in a place where you’ll be likely to see it and use it when the time comes.
9. Talking to a professional can help. Thankfully, mental health care is becoming more accessible, whether it be online or in person. There are warmlines you can call to speak to professionals about feeling unsafe or experiencing emotional distress, and these professionals can help point you in the direction of more long-term professional support, as well.
10. Identify what helps you feel joy. You didn’t choose to come into this world, but you do get to choose why you stay in it. Figuring out what’s important to you, for example: family, learning, love, art, serving others, or building memories; remembering what your strengths are; and planning for the future are just a few of the thoughts we can choose to hold onto to protect ourselves from despair.
Remember that your safety plan is personal. It’s your guide to get through a moment of crisis, and once you create it, it’s always there for you to use.