Resource anchors for cultivating safety

In order to turn towards our difficult body sensations and emotions and get curious about them, we must first feel a requisite degree of safety.  If we have spent our whole lives running from our body sensations then the healing that comes from feeling them is going to be a little bit scary.  In psychology, the term experiential avoidance is used to refer to attempts to suppress our internal experiences.  I like to look at these attempts as coping mechanisms that the body uses to try to keep us safe.  At one point these suppression attempts may have been skillful.  This is certainly the case with trauma and was the case for me when I was a kid.  I simply did not have the correct understanding of how to process difficult emotions like fear and sadness, so I went into my head to avoid them.  At the time it may have been a skillful way of coping.  Now, 30 years later, the same strategy is not helpful.  

This whole blog and website is about investigating our internal experiences so that we can get to know them and better understand how the mind body system works.  As we continue to use awareness to get curious, we start to learn that we don’t have to resist the thoughts, emotions and body sensations anymore.  We can simply learn to accept them and let them come and go.  Over time, and with practice we can actually start to make friends with these experiences.  Like any friendship that grows over time, if we get curious about what anxiety feels like in the body day after day, then we will start to view it like a friend that comes to visit from time to time.  

This turning towards requires us to be sufficiently resourced.  The ability to get curious about anxiety and other difficult emotions is something that requires a certain degree of resilience.  It’s not easy and not always the most skillful choice in any given situation.  We need to feel a certain degree of safety in order to look at our internal experiences without resisting them.  When I was suffering from severe panic, I was absolutely terrified of the sensations of panic in my body.  I was especially terrified of the sensations in my chest, upper arms, and head.  These areas did not feel very safe.  When I first tried to turn towards the sensations and feel them and get curious about them, I would panic after a short period of time.  I did not feel safe enough to be with the sensations.  The unpleasant sensations seemed like they would overwhelm me.  

If turning towards anxiety and getting curious about it is the path to healing, and doing so could possibly trigger a feeling of danger and panic, then how do we cultivate enough safety to hold our experience?

This is where resourcing comes in.  A resource anchor can be anything that gives us the feeling of safety.  I like to look at resource anchors as either internal or external anchors.  An external anchor can be anything from going for a walk in the woods, to inviting your best friend over to chat, to spending some time with your dog.  It can also be talking to a compassionate therapist or coach.  I remember when I was right in the midst of intense panic I scheduled a meeting with a mentor and therapist who is also a very experienced meditation practitioner and teacher.  We had had a relationship for a number of years at the time, and I was desperately hoping that he could make me feel safe from the terror of the panic.  I found the meeting helpful and somewhat soothing, yet I realized that even as he had been able to train his own mind and body to experience some degree of peace, there was nothing that he could do to save me from the panic.  I realized that external anchors offered some degree of safety but ultimately do not lead to a real feeling of safety.  It was a one hour meeting.  Afterwards, I was again left to spend time alone with my mind and my panic.  

Alternatively, an internal resource anchor is something that we can cultivate in our own mind and heart.  We can call upon our internal anchors whenever we need them.  They are not dependent on circumstances or being in the therapist’s office.  

The two internal resource anchors that I have found to be helpful are grounding and self compassion.

  1. Grounding- Grounding is essentially bringing one’s awareness into the extremities of the body.  This means deliberately bringing one’s attention into the feet or hands and getting curious about what these areas of the body feel like.  The reason that these are great resource anchors is that in general they have pretty neutral body sensations.  Also, if we bring our attention into the feet touching the ground, it can give us a sense of safety and stability; a feeling of connection to the solidity of the earth that can offer support.  I also like to use touch points as a means of grounding as well.   Touch points are any areas where part of the body is connecting to an external object or another part of the body.  A touch point could be the feet on the floor or the sit bones touching the chair.   When I am feeling very strong anxiety sensations, they are usually somewhat localized to the torso and the head and neck.  Sometimes the sensations cover the entire body.  However, the hands and especially the feet seem to remain pretty neutral even as anxiety surges through the rest of the body.  When I bring my attention to the feet, for example, and get curious about what’s going on there, I can let the anxiety just be as it is in the other parts of the body as I cultivate a feeling of safety just being aware of the feet.  
  2. Self compassion-  Self compassion is essentially offering ourselves friendliness and nurturing care during difficult times.  According to compassion researcher Kristen Neff, when we offer ourselves care during unpleasant moments, we are literally tapping into the mammalian caregiving system.  Only we are not babies anymore and we don’t need external actors to tap into the system.  We can learn to soothe ourselves.  

Self Compassion means  treating ourselves like we would treat a good friend.   There are all sorts of ways to cultivate compassion and numerous benefits.  Here, I want to focus on self compassion as a resource anchor.  In other words,  self compassion as a tool to feel safe when things are really challenging.  

To start it’s useful to ask ourselves the question “What do I need right now?”  There are an infinite number of ways to cultivate self compassion.  We can recall any memories or phrases or images where the intention is to offer ourselves friendliness.  Some common ways to cultivate self compassion are to silently say phrases like “May I be happy”, “May I be safe”, “May I be peaceful”.  These are traditional phrases, but I encourage you to create any phrases for yourself that make you feel good.  I also like to use memories of caring moments when others offered me care or moments of connection with another human or animal.  Recalling an image of my dog and imagining myself petting him is another way that I can feel cared for and nurtured.  With practice we start to feel a sense of warmth and safety when we call upon our self compassion practice.  

I remember calling on my self compassion practice during my most difficult times with raging panic when nothing else seemed to help.  There was a time I was on a short weekend meditation retreat and I had gotten into bed feeling ok.  After a few minutes, however, I was experiencing full blown panic.  I tried to accept the panic and get curious about it but it was simply too strong.  I was not resourced enough to turn towards it.  I was terrified and needed to feel safe.  I remember starting with bringing to mind recent images of moments where my parents showed they cared about me.  Then I let my mind wander back over the years to when I was a little kid, gently giving the mind the intention to remember moments of care.  I remembered my first day of school in second grade when my Mom waited outside at the bus stop with me.  I felt a sense of care and warmth in my body even as the panic was raging.  Continuing the practice, I focused my attention on the memories and the sensations of warmth and care in the body.  As I continued to practice compassion over many months and now years, I have found that the compassion practice doesn’t make the difficult go away.  The compassion practice actually is able to hold the anxiety with care.  This has been the most helpful resourcing practice for me because it allows the mind somewhere to go that feels safe and also often elicits a feeling of warmth.  With self compassion we come to learn that yes we are suffering and imperfect humans, but we are also taking care of ourselves.  We can learn to both be experiencing unpleasant internal sensations AND feel the safety of compassion and care for ourselves at the same time.  This changes our experience and makes things more bearable.  

It’s really important to note that these anchoring practices are just that- practices.  The more we practice them when we are not in a difficult moment the more courage we will have using them when things get challenging.  These are practices that we can use at the beginning of a daily formal meditation session to establish some safety and solidity or that we can use in little moments throughout the day.  “Short moments, many times” as one of my inspirations Mingyur Rinpoche likes to say.  

What matters is a commitment to practice.  For me I know that when I am experiencing really strong anxiety I often have this feeling that I wish I had practiced a little more.  This is simply because I am starting to get some verified faith that there is a direct relationship between how much I practice and how much suffering I experience when anxiety comes to visit.  Practicing getting in touch with our resource anchors, including grounding and self compassion is really an act of self care. 

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