Finding a Safe Place: Supporting Safety, Self-Regulation, and Sensory-Based Interventions
When children and adolescents are faced with uncertain, painful or difficult experiences, establishing or reinforcing a sense of safety is the first step to help manage emotional states such as worry, anxiety, and fear. In youth who have experienced trauma, the concept of safety can be completely depleted and replaced with a personal view of the world as a scary and dangerous place. This constant state of arousal can make it difficult for youth to feel at ease and truly experience being relaxed and calm. A loss of safety is central to a youth’s experience with trauma. In his Reclaiming Youth and Children article, The Three Pillars of TraumaWise Care, Howard Bath (2015) cites safety as the first critical area of support needed in a child or teen’s milieu to nurture healing and resilience in connection to trauma intervention.
Finding refuge from a brain constantly navigating potential danger and a body always geared up to defend against the next threat can be mediated by the use of sensory-based interventions. Sensory based interventions because of their ability to support and facilitate functioning in lower parts of the brain that manage these challenging experiences can be successful to begin regulating activated hyperarousal systems. Cognitive and language focused interventions can often be limited and unsuccessful in helping youth to start and make sense of trauma reactions and emotions they are experiencing.
Sensory-based interventions include non-verbal ways to help bring calm to the youth’s body and mind, such as the use of:
- Deep breathing
- Art expression
- Guided imagery
- Physical activity, such as going for a walk or exercise
Creating or maintaining routines and a consistent, reliable structure can also be valuable to fostering a youth’s sense of security, decrease worries, and communicate they are cared for and matter. In addition, safety planning can also be a useful strategy and tool that can help youth stay safe when faced with a threatening, dangerous, or crisis situation. The Sanctuary Model, uses a safety planning strategy to help survivors and trauma informed professionals to identify what personalized self-soothing, safe, and useful activities could be activated when experiencing distress that could lead to unsafe and uncontrollable behavior (Bloom, 2010).
A safety plan can include, but is not limited to:
- Emergency contact numbers
- Establishing a specific safe word to use with trusted others
- Safe places and people to go to for help
- Self soothing and sensory based ways to manage trauma stress
In the Sanctuary Model, everyone in the trauma informed environment creates their own personalized safety plan- not just youth, adults, and families that are receiving services, but the adults working in the setting as well. This helps normalize and validate the important need for everyone to manage ways to be safe. Learn more about this safety plan model here.
Upon reflecting on these topics, I wonder what a sensory-based safety plan would look like for ourselves as trauma practitioners if created as a piece of art? It could be created using drawing or collage materials on an index card, 8 ½ x 11 cardstock, in a journal/sketchbook, or in another creative way that could be securely kept and accessible when needed.
For more TLC resources about sensory based interventions and safety, be sure to check out these links:
Why Use Sensory-Based Interventions for Trauma? https://www.starr.org/training/tlc/focus/why-use-sensory-based-interventions-trauma
The Importance of Safety Connections https://www.starr.org/training/tlc/focus/importance-safety-connections
Routines and Rituals
Bath, H. (2015). The Three Pillars of TraumaWise Care: Healing in the Other 23
Hours. Reclaiming Children and Youth. 23(4).
Bloom, S. (2010). Safety Plans. (PDF) Retrieved from
About Gretchen Miller
Gretchen M. Miller, MA, ATR-BC, ACTP is a Cleveland, Ohio based Registered Board Certified Art Therapist and TLC Advanced Certified Trauma Practitioner. Over the course of her career Gretchen has provided art therapy to children, adolescents, families, and adults in shelters, residential treatment, mental health programs, outreach services, and more. Gretchen is also an adjunct faculty member for the Counseling & Art Therapy Graduate Program at Ursuline College, as well as teaches and presents regionally and nationally on the application of art therapy and trauma intervention.
To schedule a training or consultation, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.Read Gretchen Miller’s Bio