Exploring how we're UNSAFE as Discovery for Trauma Work
UNSAFE is an acronym created by The Crisses to help survivors & therapists remember the wide variety of emotions, impulses, reactions, and feelings that we may have when we're experiencing a trauma reaction.
There are times during therapy, coaching, group or self-work that we want to make a systematic inquiry into how our nervous system is trying to protect us. We can investigate how we feel UNSAFE to leverage the information we gain in helping our system to identify problems and trauma issues. We can also keep a log of emotions and sensations to monitor changes.
Checking how UNSAFE we feel works well in conjunction with the SUDS Scales New; we then rate our subjective distress on a 0-10 scale and jot down any other UNSAFE feels that comes up.
Utilizing UNSAFE involves asking one's body (in some cases it might be another headmate's emotions or body sense, especially if we aren't able to ) how it feels about a particular situation — it can be a present-day situation or something that you're thinking of doing in the near future.
We've created the UNSAFE acronym to help folks unpack complex (probably now-outdated) trauma-reactions that our body logged as signs that something bad might happen soon: Unmet needs, Noticed perceptions, the Story or mindstate of the event, our Age at the time, Feelings such as panic reactions or physical sensations, and Emotions (angry, sad, ashamed…). We talk about where our body memorized these sensations from in the Triggers article.
Let's delve into the significance of UNSAFE and how it can aid in memory reconsolidation and self-discovery.
Unpacking the UNSAFE Acronym
The questions can help individuals delve deeper into their experiences and serve as a guide to uncover important insights and promote healing and growth.
Ask about how your body is feeling and what your body is saying when "feeling" or "dropping into" the triggering situation or "now" if you are currently triggered. Overall, one might ask "How does that feel for your body right now?" This might be used when going back to a recent memory, or to try to figure out what is stopping us from getting past a trauma trigger. Using our own coffee trigger and an imaginary scenario as an example: "Picture yourself going into Starbucks. There is a strong smell of coffee. What's going on in your body right now?"
- Unmet needs
- There may be something we were longing for, a basic need that went unmet, or we may have repressed or trapped impulses or desires. These needs can be played out and/or resolved in some types of imaginal work.
- What does your body say it needs right now?
- Are there any trapped urges your body has been holding?
- Noticed perceptions
- Our observations and experiences such as intrusive thoughts, level of dissociation, flashbacks or images, sounds or voices that emerge during our triggered states. We might get impressions of sensory information like a whiff of a scent, or an expectation of seeing something.
- What sensations do you notice?
- Are there other times you noticed you've felt this way?
- What's going on, the beliefs, stories we tell ourselves, or felt sense about the situation. Examples might be "I feel trapped" "I have to get out of here" "I can't stand it" "people aren't trustworthy". We have framed an experience in an attempt to make sense of what we're experiencing.
- What's the story?
- What's happening in this situation?
- How do you feel about this?
- What is your body saying about this?
- Age or ability
- The sense of age or capabilities around the trauma reaction. Sometimes we can't pinpoint a number but can determine whether we are pre-verbal, schoolage, whether we have hit specific milestones, or it might be before we gained certain skills, perspectives or ability.
- About how old do you feel you are right now?
- How do you feel you might handle this?
- Tuning in to physical sensations such as tension, discomfort, or unease that arise, activation or panic reactions, signs of heightened or lowered metabolism may include heart rate, sweating, breathing rate, ability to focus or concentrate, racing thoughts, physical tension, maldigestion, readiness to flee or fight, system shut down and a flop or freeze reaction of inability to move & more.
- How are you feeling right now?
- What do you notice about your body sensations now?
- Do you feel any signals of anxiety, panic or shut-down?
- Emotions form a vital component of discovery work. By paying attention to emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, or joy, individuals can uncover unresolved traumas, unmet needs, and facilitate emotional healing.
- What emotions are coming up?
There are many emotion-wheels or feeling-wheels you can find online.
Generally they're based around top-level categories, and more specific sub-level(s) of emotions:
- Joyful, Excited, Content, Grateful, Optimistic, Satisfied
- Affectionate, Compassionate, Caring, Nurturing, Tender, Warm-hearted
- Isolated, Abandoned, Alienated, Empty, Forsaken, Longing
- Guilty, Remorseful, Humiliated, Regretful, Embarrassed, Self-conscious
- Perplexed, Disoriented, Bewildered, Uncertain, Puzzled, Ambivalent
- Depressed, Grief-stricken, Despairing, Melancholic, Disheartened, Blue
- Injured, Wounded, Betrayed, Rejected, Offended, Resentful
- Fearful, Anxious, Worried, Nervous, Panicked, Terrified
- Furious, Enraged, Irritated, Resentful, Frustrated, Provoked
These emotions are just broad categories; there can be variations and combinations within each one. Feelings are unique and personal, and individuals may experience them differently and each person may not be talking about the same emotion when referencing a specific word — this is why asking what they'd like instead is important (see below) so that each person can determine and voice their own needs in their own words. This is not prescriptive, it's descriptive. This list is provided as a starting point to explore and identify your emotions, and to begin to put words and labels on them.
For a more thorough spreadsheet of emotions please see this PDF file.
Applying UNSAFE in Discovery Work
Discovery work is an essential aspect of getting reliable results for memory reconsolidation New and trauma work New. Inquiring about how we feel UNSAFE during discovery work allows making more direct mismatches.
For each UNSAFE answer, one can ask for an equal and opposite "What would you like to feel instead?" So for example "You say you feel nervous when you smell coffee…what would you like to feel instead?" We'd say, "Safe and calm."
Then in any mismatch work, our buddy, coach, counselor or therapist would make sure to contrast feeling nervous versus feeling safe & calm.
Here are some practical steps to apply the UNSAFE approach for your own discovery work:
- Establish a safe and supportive environment for exploration.
- Create a journal or a dedicated space to document and reflect on your experiences.
- Take time for self-reflection and introspection, allowing the UNSAFE components to guide your inquiry.
- Practice mindfulness and grounding techniques to stay present during the exploration process.
- Seek support from a therapist or a trusted individual who understands the unique challenges of plural and DID systems.
- Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate the complexities of your inner world.
Verifying Memory Reconsolidation
In addition to its role in the initial discovery work, the UNSAFE framework can also be utilized in follow-up sessions to verify the effectiveness of memory reconsolidation. By revisiting the UNSAFE elements, individuals can assess whether there have been any shifts or changes that have occurred as a result of therapy or inner work.
Generally, if memory reconsolidation has been successful, then you aren't UNSAFE anymore, at least not about this specific target. There may be additional trauma targets to tackle another time. Thus after a successful memory reconsolidation — when thinking about the original target memory, situation, belief, trauma, etc. — you won't be able to feel the same UNSAFE sensations about it any longer.
- Unmet needs
- By exploring whether previously unmet needs have been addressed or resolved, individuals can gauge if their longings and desires have transformed or found fulfillment.
- Noticed perceptions
- Revisiting observed perceptions, such as intrusive thoughts, dissociation levels, flashbacks, or sensory impressions, allows individuals to evaluate if there has been a reduction in their intensity or frequency. Decreased intrusions and a more grounded connection to the present may indicate that memory reconsolidation has taken place.
- Assessing any shifts in beliefs about the traumatic situation or the overall felt sense about a situation helps determine if there has been a reframing or reinterpretation of the traumatic experience. If the narratives have evolved to reflect a greater sense of empowerment, safety, or understanding, it signals progress in memory reconsolidation and the integration of new perspectives. Another significant change may be that the memories are now percieved as fitting into their proper chronological space within our life story, instead of still being present and relevant.
- Age or ability
- If there is a noticeable shift in feeling more capable, less compelled to shift age due to activation, more grounded in the Here & Now, less shrinking in size or losing skills or capabilities around the issues in question, then it might be considered a positive shift towards healthier reactions. (i.e. if system kids aren't compelled to face fearful and scary things they could not handle anymore, this would be a good thing).
- Monitoring changes in physical sensations, activation levels, and stable energy or activation level allows individuals to assess if there has been a reduction in distressing symptoms. A decrease in tension, discomfort, or unease, along with improved emotional regulation and a greater sense of calmness, indicates successful memory reconsolidation.
- Emotions play a crucial role in verifying memory reconsolidation. Are there changes in the predominant emotions associated with the target issues? Is there less fear, anger, or sadness or other distress — and more emotions aligned with healing, growth, love and joy? An increase in emotional resilience, a greater capacity to manage and express emotions in a healthy manner, and a sense of emotional healing, is a hallmark of the reconsolidation process.
By utilizing the UNSAFE framework in follow-up sessions, individuals and their therapists or guides can evaluate the progress and efficacy of memory reconsolidation. Positive changes in unmet needs, noticed perceptions, story, age or ability, feelings, and emotions demonstrate the transformative power of memory reconsolidation in promoting healing, growth, and resilience.
Embarking on the journey of discovery work is a courageous step towards healing and integration. Ironically, by utilizing the UNSAFE acronym, individuals can learn to better hone in on what their trauma reaction is saying is actually UNSAFE — and thus how it's trying to keep them safe!
Based on the work of Alun Parry (affiliate link) and others, Crisses came up with this acronym and description. ChatGPT gave some assistance but needed massive rewriting.