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How to Develop Your First Safety Plan—and Why You Should

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

In most circles, safety plans are discussed as a tool for suicide prevention. While they are certainly a great resource for people who may experience a crisis such as suicidal ideation, safety plans are a self-care tool that proves useful in less extreme situations as well.

Whether you’re someone who would benefit from a personal safety plan or you’re interested in implementing an organizational safety plan for your workplace, this introduction to safety plans is a great place to start.

What is a Safety Plan?

A safety plan is exactly what it sounds like—a plan for safety. In certain situations, such as working with a patient with suicidal tendencies or addressing issues in a warehouse, physical safety is the focus.

But having a sense of physical safety is not the only thing we need to feel safe. A safety plan can also address how to cope when someone is feeling unsafe socially and emotionally.

In addition to physical safety, the trauma-informed model identifies five other key aspects of safety:

· Psychological safety

· Social safety

· Moral safety

· Racial safety

· Cultural safety

Especially in a workplace, school, or other institution, a sense of safety within the community is essential for healing. A sense of safety arises when a person is safe in each of these domains.

Why Would You Need A Safety Plan?

The purpose of a safety plan is twofold. Safety plans exist to prevent overwhelm, trauma brain, and unsafe situations. They also present coping strategies and solutions when we experience distress.

Safety plans are often encouraged when dealing with severe depression, but safety plans can be useful for anyone. Each safety plan is tailored to your specific needs, personally or organizationally, so they can be a useful resource no matter what situation, demographic, or challenge you’re dealing with.

While safety plans can be especially useful for those who experience diagnosed mental health conditions such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, they can help anyone who struggles with emotional regulation and stress—which is almost everyone.

A safety plan can be useful when you or your organization:

· experiences burnout, excessive stress, and chronic work-related fatigue

· struggles to navigate emotionally fueled conflict

· finds it difficult to recover from anger, sadness, or disappointment

· uses unhealthy coping skills to deal with negative emotions

· must work through grief, loss, and other severe emotional pain

How to Develop a Personal Safety Plan

Developing a complete safety plan consists of six steps:

1. Notice the Signs and Triggers

2. Identify Coping Strategies

3. Seek Out Distractions

4. Talk to Supportive Friends and Family

5. Contact Professionals Who Can Help

6. Cultivate a Safe Environment

Each step of the safety plan contributes to the overall goal of preventing and addressing emotions, behaviors, and events that lead to distress and crisis scenarios.

1 Notice the Signs and Triggers

The first step of a safety plan aids us in self-awareness. When we are calm, we can identify triggers and signs that we are triggered so that the next time a situation arises, we can notice what is happening in our bodies and minds.

These can be internal signals, like emotions and thoughts, or external triggers like a specific situation or behaviors.

Examples: Crowded places, reoccurring negative thought patterns such as “I’m a failure,” feelings of overwhelm, nail-biting, excessive smoking or drinking, etc.

2 Identify Coping Strategies

Next, we identify coping skills. These are things that you can do by yourself to take your mind off of the issue at hand, process it, or calm down from a heightened emotional state. Coping strategies can include relaxation techniques, physical activities, and mental practices.

Assigning each trigger 3-5 coping strategies is important because not every coping skill will work every time.

Think of these coping skills as tools in your kit. Sometimes, a tool may work perfectly, while other times, another tool will be better. If one tool fails you, then it doesn’t mean the tool is broken or useless—it just wasn’t the right one at that moment.

Examples: A specific meditation, a body scan practice, going for a walk or run, rehearsing affirmations, identifying cognitive distortions, reality checking, journaling, etc.

3 Seek Out Distractions

When coping on your own fails to help you emotionally regulate, it’s okay to seek out distractions. In fact, it’s the next step in our safety plans.

Distractions can include people, places, and activities that will take your mind off of what’s going on.

Keep in mind that while distractions are a useful coping strategy, making a habit of distraction can quickly turn into avoidance, which can be detrimental to your wellbeing.

Examples: Calling a friend to catch up, going shopping, eating at a restaurant, practicing a hobby, playing with a pet, doing a puzzle, etc.

4 Talk to Supportive Friends and Family

Another step in the safety plan involves finding people you can talk to about what’s happening. You may want to go to a trusted friend, family member, or partner. Talking to your pets can be therapeutic as well, even when you know they don’t understand what you’re saying.

When going to a friend to vent or discuss your issues, you’ll find the conversation more supportive when:

· you ask for their consent to talk about the issue before diving in

· you are clear about what you need from them (solutions or listening)

· you know that you can trust them and be vulnerable around them

In your safety plan, identify a few people you can talk to.

Examples: Calling a parent or mentor, talking to a close friend, video chatting with a sibling or partner, etc.

5 Contact Professionals Who Can Help

There will be times when the supportive people in your life are either unavailable or don’t have the emotional energy to provide support at the exact time you’re seeking it. You may also feel that your issues will be better addressed by a professional, or the people in your life may not be the best at supporting you.

There are plenty of professionals out there to assist you. Include contact information for professionals who can provide support during a crisis or distressing time in your safety plan.

Examples: Texting your counselor or therapist, calling your coach, contacting your PCP, calling a lifeline, etc.

6 Cultivate a Safe Environment

The last step of the safety plan focuses on preventing distress by creating an environment where you feel safe. Remember, there are various facets of safety, including physical, psychological, social, moral, racial, and cultural safety.

Examples: Tidying up, putting out soft blankets, removing potential hazards, setting yourself up for success, providing easy access to food and water, not speaking to toxic people, etc.

Final Thoughts: Safety Plans and Trauma-Informed Implementation

Safety plans are essential to trauma-informed leadership and implementation because safety is key to establishing social-emotional wellbeing. I relate having a safety plan to caring for ourselves when we are triggered and before we find ourselves in Fight, Flight, Freeze or Appease we can put into place certain “safety” considerations so that we may stay in executive functioning. Once, the immediate threat has subsided, it is critical, that we go back and asses if the plan worked, and also to gain understanding about what it was that triggered us in the first place, so we might get to the root of the issue and/or enhance our safety around those issues.

If you are interested in establishing your own personal safety plan, you may click here for a free questionnaire to create your own customized safety plan.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where we’ll discuss the basic concepts of developing a workplace safety plan. For more information on how to apply a trauma-informed approach in your organization, download our free guide here.


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