Place has a special spot in our brains. There are actually cells that are “place cells” that give a reference to where we are. But it is the clinical use of the word “place” that is intriguing. In current psycho-lingo, place is a frame of mind, not a dot on a map.
Terms like “go to your safe place” or “I am not in that place to make a change” populate our description of mental states — not political ones. The imaginary is understandable. In times of fear our body directs us to safe environs. For our ancestors, it may be deeper into a cave. In my pediatric office, the nervous kids would scurry under the chairs.
With the confederacy of the mothers, we “searched” for the missing children. Only when they felt safe would they giggle louder to be found, or they would spring from their bastion of furniture to scare us.
Place is also a perfect word because oft-times our memories of a different location and time have thrown our emotional gyroscopes out of kilter. For the soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, it could be a battlefield decades and thousands of miles removed. However, we must remember we don’t have to enlist or be drafted to be terrified.
Too often we don’t realize that children can be in their own physical or stressful combat zones. In domestic dysfunction, the home is the place that should be secure, but is instead the domicile of fright.
For survival, we move to places of safety, including travel to retreats of holiness for shelter from the slings and arrows of the world. Pilgrimages to sanctuaries are universal in all traditions and as old as religious inner burnings. Indelibly impressed on my mind is seeing a woman crawling on her knees on the rough stone pavement toward a shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Nature creates a need for safe havens. The people along the northeast coast know firsthand of the urgency to vacate from danger. Our daughter-in-law — as a 9-month-old baby — survived in her mother’s arms in a bathtub as a tornado devastated the house all around them.
A place comes not just with a GPS notation, but a mental milieu. Private and isolated surroundings promote peace. In contrast, picture the millions on the hajj or the thousands bathing in the Ganges. They show us that a place means more than physical seclusion. In these moments, the multitude of the masses confirms the rectitude of their beliefs. Further, individual feelings of solitude come when surrounded like an island by a sea of total strangers who share common values. There is the old thought of safety in numbers, if you can avoid being stepped on.
The Beach Boys have a song with the lines, “There’s a place where I can go and tell my troubles to, in my room, in my room.” Rooms, closets, fields or downtown are all places. Anywhere our brains go is a place.
Transporting our thoughts and feelings from one state of mind to another is tougher than getting up and journeying to Mecca, Rome or Jerusalem. Yet, the journey of the mind is what we need in order to move fear to mastery, or anger to control.
Our memories can teleport us anywhere. But all memory is not the same. Some are far more intense than others. Stress hormones cause the mind to freeze in past places of panic. It is like having a foot nailed to the floor. You can’t leave that scene of terror. The memory is stuck in a virtual La Brea Tar Pit. The nightmares come. Sleep becomes an accomplice to the suffering.
Here is the paradox: Victory will not come from concealment in a clandestine safe house but returning to our individual fight. We teach our bodies we can be in that place but not of that place. We can learn to re-label or reconstruct the brain’s images, retreating temporarily to our safe place if necessary, but returning to the fight. This going back to the fear is tough, but possible when there is a pre-planned evacuation route and often with someone giving directions along the way to a safe spot inside.
Being in the safe place is an object of our sanity. Being able to move to a safe place mentally is our emotional salvation. Support, prayer, meditation, professionals, friends, practice and courage all carry us to that safe and holy place to fight another day.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.