Feeling Safe in an Unsafe World


There is anxiety about the safety of pesticides on food, lead in our water, road rage, terrorist attacks, school shootings. And the list goes on. Feeling safe in the world today is not easy. We are confronted with so many situations that make us anxious. The situations and the anxiety they provoke are on a continuum, but it seems that the uncertainty of our safety has resulted in an almost constant state of anxiety. Sometimes we are well aware of our anxiety; at other times, it is below the surface, but can be easily pulled to the top. So, how can we help ourselves and the young people in our lives cope with this world of uncertainty?

I need to stress that feeling safe is different from being safe. We cannot always control the reality of the world. Parents cannot eliminate pollutants, lead in water, road rage, and so on. They can, however, help children develop a sense of trust in the world. We do that from the moment we hold our newborns in our arms; we make them feel safe. When we hold them and feed them, we let them know that their needs will be met. When we respond to their cries, we let them know that their communication has meaning and they can trust that communicating will have a positive consequence. When we reassure them by going in their room when they are calling us, we let them know that we will do what we can to keep them safe. As they get older, we let them know that we trust that they can take care of themselves, meet their own needs, and make good decisions about their own health and safety. This process is ongoing; even as adults, we know we need to trust our safety to others sometimes (our physicians, our lawyers, our significant other, our own children).

This development of trust, therefore, is a critical factor in feeling safe in an unsafe world. It can be enhanced by various strategies:

  • Recognize the impact of the availability and representativeness heuristics. Heuristics are “rules of thumb” that we use to make our “everyday” decisions. They allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. For example, the availability heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily recalled, it must be important. For example, when we search for a gift for our significant other, our search is not random. We start with the things we “know” they like; that is, we start with the things we easily recall about their preferences (he/she likes movies, theater, sports, gardening and so on). The representativeness heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily available, it must represent the bigger picture. If we stick with the “problem” of getting a gift for our significant other, then a gift we selected in the past (which is easily recalled/available to us) becomes representative of their preference for future gifts. (If they liked the flowers last time, flowers come to symbolize or represent the category of “appropriate/good gift”). Thus, the easier it is for us to think of something (the more available it is to us) and the more we think that it is the “rule” (representative of the total situation), the greater impact it will have on our thinking. In essence, these heuristics combine to form the basis of a stereotype. Based on the example that comes to mind, we generalize to the larger group. So, if we watch the news and see stories about bullying, illness, murder, and terrorism, then we will think of these things often and come to believe it is the way the world is. If we hear stories of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion, then we will believe that the world is full of such attributes.
  • What we are exposed to via all forms of media, influences what is available and representative. We need to make a conscious effort to seek the balance – that is – to seek out the stories that remind us of the safer parts of our world. When we are talking to children and teens, we need to make it a point to mention the daily kindnesses we experience. Sometimes that is difficult for adults to recognize, but such things happen every day. Someone picks up something we have dropped, someone offers us candy while at a meeting, someone offers a seat on the bus or train, a baby offers their blanket to a parent, someone offers condolences, and so on. These “simple” acts are as much a part of human nature as any horror we hear about on a daily basis; in fact, they are the norm while the horrors we hear are the deviance from the norm.
  • While it is important to teach our children about stranger danger, it is also important to let them know why we, as adults, can talk to other adults we do not know. The same way they make friends with other children in school or at the library or in the park, we can make friends with other adults in the supermarket, or at the park. Let them know that when they are grown-ups, they will be able to make friends with other grown-ups. After all, this is the basis of all future intimate relationships. Relationships without trust are fragile at best.
  • Once we hear something that makes us feel unsafe, and the anxiety begins, then we must control the anxiety. The first thing we need to do is calm our body down. This is best accomplished by taking a few deep breaths and concentrating on breathing (rather than on the event that caused the anxiety). The second thing to do is “think good thoughts.” We need to have a “go to” list of happy, good thoughts that are easily available to us (this can be those pictures of kittens and puppies or the list of kindnesses discussed above). Third, we need to have a “what if” plan – a plan of what we will do if the thing we are worried about really happens: if that bully at school is trying to get you alone, you will ask the teacher if you can stay after class to talk or offer to buy a snack for a friend so you are walking with someone else; if there is a terrorist event that once again eliminates cell service and electricity, we will have a specific meeting place set up and we will get there as soon as possible, etc. Finally, as an adult, you will model feeling safe. You will breathe, say good things about the world, talk about how you will handle things if they do not go as we would hope. You will not be afraid.

The world we live in bombards us with realities that are frightening.   As adults, we feel it on a daily basis. We need to remember that the children and teens in our lives have an even more difficult time dealing with these realities. We need to let them talk about what they are feeling when the see the children in Syria living in the rubble, when they see the children of undocumented immigrants crying as their parents are arrested for minor infractions, when they see parents crying because their child was born ill because they were bitten by a mosquito when pregnant, or crying because their child was a victim of a school or random shooting. We need to help them process these thoughts cognitively and emotionally. We need to provide them comfort and reassurance while we also model how doing even a small act of kindness can make a difference in the world. We need to let them know that these events, while easily available to us, are not representative of the human race. Humans are born with the capacity for empathy and retain that capacity throughout their lifetime. We need to make it clear that the instances of empathy, kindness, and compassion are representative of who we, as humans, really are.

~“Looking down, you’ll see just shadows. Looking up, you will see the sun” – Jon Gilbert ~

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12 thoughts on “Feeling Safe in an Unsafe World

  1. We must instill confidence in our children and strength. Particularly in the face of adversity. We do that by being strong ourselves and exuding our own confidence. You are so in the money, because children will follow queues. If you hate, they’ll hate. But if you have self-confidence, backbone & perseverance– so will they.

  2. Reading this really gave me life! So much has been going on, US going to war, teenagers committing suicide on social media, etc.. Everytime I go on facebook I see how much this world has changed. When I was younger everything was so simple, happy, and easy. As an adult, we see and hear the craziest things and have to figure out wether we should DO something or just push it to the back of our heads. Lately the big topic on facebook us suicide. The show 13 Reasons Why aired and it literally showed a girl committing suicide and sending tapes to 13 people who supposedlt caused her to commit suicide. On facebook a young girl took her own life and her unborn child’s life because she felt like she didn’t have anyone. Her boyfriend took his own life 2 days later after the girls family and friends blamed him for her death. After watching the show and hearing this sad story it made me feel so sad. This made me think to myself, imagine all the things I’ve done or said to someone and didn’t even realize how much I hurt them. The smallest things a person says or does can mean something very big to someone else. After reading this article, I feel motivated to change my ways and be more positive. I want to make a random persons day. I want to spend a day talking to a homeless person and giving them food. I want to engage in a conversation with a complete stranger and just talk. I want to listen to someone, be a good friend and let people know they are not alone. I not only want to do all these things because of this article but because that’s all I wanted from someone. I’ve been suffering from depression for a while now and to have someone to just talk to and listen to means a lot even if its just a random conversation. I think me talking to a stranger and listening to their stories will not only help them but me too. THANK YOU FOR THIS ARTICLE!

    1. I am so glad that you found this article so motivating. You certainly lifted my spirits:) I agree that talking (whether we talk to our family, friends, or our therapist) helps all of us. To maintain our kindness we need to surround ourselves with people who support us in our efforts to be kind and help us to maintain our safety within this sometimes unsafe world. I am proud to be part of a field filled with people who devote themselves to helping people develop the inner strength to let our kindness and compassion emerge and flourish. It is always my hope that more and more people will take advantage of the support that psychologists offer.

  3. This piece is amazing and very frightening! I most certainly agree that we are living in a tough and dangerous world where we live in societies that want to harm and create some sort of fear that would harm us physically and mentally. The technology is getting better and the societies we live in are using it to create these crimes that can basically harm thousands of people! Like the media for example, in my opinion, what the mainstream media is trying to do these days is creating fear and false propaganda that will cause the people to freak out in a certain way, have different beliefs, and try to harm others. Especially when they report about certain crimes. People who are mentally ill are influenced by these crimes and they would decide to plan these horrific acts which is scary! The anxiety is at a all time high when it comes to that and I think should try to find a way to overcome that. I also agree that we have to help the children learn how to have some trust in the world so that they can be aware of what is going on and try to prevent themselves from being in danger. I feel like it’s best to keep the technology away from the children because it is basically fooling them to believe certain things they shouldn’t believe without specific evidence. As I look back into my childhood, the way how our society ran was completely different! Technology was limited and social media was basically non-existent at the time. People in different areas got along with each other and ever since the 9/11 attacks and other violent crimes happened, the media started to report these constantly and new technology was being invented and it basically allowed them to create this fear and bombardment that basically removed us from our reality. Everyone became anxious ever since. Overall, the world we live in now is very tough and even more dangerous and we must do our best removing the anxiety by teaching these children how to view the world in a positive manner and gain trust within our societies.

  4. I agree 100% with this post, a lot has been happening in this world, terrorists, school shooting, etc. NEEDS TO STOP. This world has became a world of complete chaos. We need to clean things up, even if its treating someone nicer. A lot of scary things are happening and will continue to happen but we can put a stop to this, thank you for this article it was a great read like always. Can’t wait to read more!

  5. I agree with what Dr. Urban had mentioned in her article “What we are exposed to via all forms of media, influences what is available and representative”. Social media I believe is a big factor on why many of us do not feel safe in this world, or at least for myself. Facebook has been one main problem, where people actually record themselves doing crazy things such as committing suicide, killing others, or people arguing for no reason. And, its not even facebook , you can search on google suicides that were committed today and you can literally read all of the horrendous things of why people committed suicide. Also, people are meeting other people online using apps such as tinder, instagram, and you don’t really know for sure if that person is real? I mean like 8/10 times the person is probably not real.

    Like people say, the world is a scary place. But, you don’t have to be scared to live in this world. Always: 1)Believe in yourself – listen to YOUR OWN INTUITION, not anyone else’s. 2)Be present – pay attention to what’s wrong in the world, and try not to do what others are doing. Maybe you can be that one help that will stop all of this madness in this world thats happening. and 3) Accept uncertainty- if things aren’t going right for you or even something that happened the day before you had a great day, accept it and move on. It’s life, things happen for a reason. It’s up to you, to not let those things happen again.

  6. This was a very strong passage. Whether you feel safe or not it is important to keep the positivity in your life around and always be aware of what is going on in the world. That means the good and the bad. we must hold and be held accountable when need be and encourage when we can.

  7. The reality is that we as adults are already use to what’s going on in the world now. I remember being a teenager when the year 2000 was coming and the fear the media caused, then when 6,6,6 came and how they played that as well. I believe that we just have to stay positive and just believe that things will be ok. To think positive because that’s the only way positive things will happen. We can’t allow for the negativity to take over our lives.

  8. I really liked the statement you had said on feeling safe is completely different from being safe and the examples you said such as road rage, no one can ever expect some as dangerous as that outcome and the roads are never 100% safe. I myself thought of some examples such as an abusive parent, people look to their parenrs for guidance and support but sometimes unfortunately that can turn to rage and physical abuse which tanishes someone’s trust. Children in today’s age tend to stick alone and are more confidential at an earlier stage, I’d say it’s due to how society is todag but in many cases it could be many other reasons such as dissorders, fear, lack of trust. It is important to show children that trust is one of the most vital and important things that someone can give to another so tarnishing and or not having someone’s trust especially a child could really effect how a child can turn out in the long run and what defines them as a person and they will later struggle to trust anyone if their own parents tarnish that trust at a young age. Aside from this it is best to provide a positive feel towards children but towards others to make sure that they all feel safe not just around you but with others. It only takes one person to break another person’s trust and can effect them for a long period of time but with the correct teachings and showing of trust and giving them a positive sense of feeling safe, they ultimately feel that trust and feeling of safety.

  9. I really like this post, because I agree with what you said about teaching your kids about stranger danger and showing them that adults only interact with adults and shouldn’t be associating themselves with children. But i know parents can’t live in fear and trying to lower your anxiety about any horrific situation is very hard

  10. This was a very nice post. I agree 100%. We live in a very cruel world. No matter what happens you have to stay positive. We as people can’t let the negativity bring us down. I agree with Dr. Urban when she said teens and children will have mor difficulty with realities because they are the ones who will grow up surrounded by it which is not good.

  11. We live in an unperfect world. The list of worldwide issues we face is endless. There comes a point in time where you have to face reality and except the fact that you’re on this planet and you can’t leave. There’s no use in stressing yourself out about all the things that are wrong with this planet. What we can do is stay educated. We need to see educated on things from government to what we put in our bodies. We can use the information we gather to build a healthy lifestyle and mindset. We have to look at life from another view we have to except happiness in our lives even though you will eventually experience hardships there’s always a Silverlining and it’s your choice to put the past away and live for the future live for the future you’ve always wanted.

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