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Let’s Talk About Mental Health: Safe spaces and social connection

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The BASE community center. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

By Shannon Steele EBS COLUMNIST

“Only through our connectedness to others can we really know and enhance the self. And only through working on the self can we begin to enhance our connectedness to others.” 

– Harriet Goldhor Lerner

SAFETY is a fundamental requirement for being our best, authentic selves and impacts our ability to genuinely connect with others. By safety, I don’t just mean free from physical harm or danger, but our sense of safety that is rooted in our nervous systems. Our nervous system responds the same to life-threatening situations and stressful, difficult situations. Biologically, we do not distinguish between the two. Just because we are safe optically, does not mean we feel safe physically, psychologically, emotionally or socially. 

What happens when we don’t feel safe?

Our thinking/logic brain-center goes offline, and our sense and emotion brain-centers become activated. 

We also may:

  • Withdraw (flight)
  • Become frustrated and angry, act out, yell or destroy property (fight)
  • Be zoned out, hard to reach or shut down (freeze)
  • Misinterpret social cues as a threat or dangerous
  • Seek social connection focused on pleasing and appeasing, or overly concerned about approval

In other words, emotionally, psychologically, and socially, we move toward an instinctive need
to survive. 

What makes us feel unsafe?

The traumas and stressors of everyday life are like a thousand tiny paper cuts. We can quickly get over one paper cut, but a thousand micro cuts over time becomes unbearable. We begin to live in a perpetual state of survival, constantly scanning our environment for threats, and developing fixed patterns of beliefs and behaviors that keep us stuck.

We have the right to FEEL safe all the time.

How do we increase our sense of safety? 

Safety occurs when we can relax and be present and curious about what is going on around us. To get there, we must release the traumatic or stressful energy that is built up in our system. But first, developing safety within our self and others is necessary to discharge energy and move out of survival mode.

Tips for creating safety:

  • Connect with others who are calm and centered
  • Work with a counselor who is trained in creating a relationship with you that is safe
  • Pay attention to when you do feel calm and regulated and savor those moments
  • Engage in activities that help you be more present

Where can we find a safe space?

Big Sky is committed to creating spaces where people can truly feel safe and connected. Thanks to the efforts of Big Sky Community Organization, generous donors, and community members, BASE Community Center opened its doors in March of 2022 to do just that.

Eileen Coil, BASE’s Fitness and Wellness Manager, described BASE as a safe space where everyone is welcome, “…it’s an accessible, affordable place where people can gather without judgement or fear, and welcomes anyone regardless of their personal beliefs, race, sexuality, or age.  We have created an environment that encourages safe, healthy recreational opportunities.” 

BASE also seeks to normalize mental health as much as physical health by providing a space for programs and services such as individual and family counseling, grief support groups, suicide alertness education and a meeting space for the Navigator Network and Big Sky Behavioral Health Coalition.

BASE Community Center opened its doors just four months ago and has already had a tremendous impact on the health and wellness of the Big Sky community.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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