Four Ways That Creating a Family Safety Plan Will Improve Your Mental Health

Author: Bailey McAdams, M.Ed, LPC
Length: Six minute read

Imagine yourself lying peacefully asleep in your bed in the dead of night and then being bolted awake by the piercing, deafening shriek of your smoke detector sounding.
One second passes.
Two seconds.
Three seconds.
Four.
Five.
You sit up in your bed, your groggy brain reeling, trying to make sense of what’s going on.
Six.
Seven.
Eight.
Nine.
“Is that the smoke detector? Why is this happening? Is this thing malfunctioning?”
Ten.
Eleven.
Twelve.

Then you smell the smoke.
Thirteen.
Fourteen.
Fifteen.

“Uh oh.”
Sixteen.
Seventeen.
Eighteen.

Now what? What’s your first move? You’re on the clock.
Nineteen.
Twenty.
Twenty-one.
Straight to your kids’ rooms? Are they still in their beds or are they running toward you in the dark when they, too, were startled awake? What if the fire is between you and them? Do they know where to go? Down the stairs? Out the window? Does that window even open? Do they know how to open it?  Do you know how to open it? Are they thinking clearly? Are you thinking clearly?

Picturing yourself and your family going through an emergency situation like a house fire or a tornado or a home invasion is scary. Being afraid of storms and natural disasters are normal, developmental fears. Those fears develop early in childhood, they tend to lessen in neurotypical adolescents and adults, but they probably never go away completely. Anxiety sufferers likely never outgrow these fears. And those fears get exacerbated by media.  It’s perfectly okay to be concerned about these things, but you don’t have to be anxious. Putting together a family emergency preparedness plan is not only a responsible thing to do with regards to your family’s physical safety, but it will pay huge dividends soothing anxieties and in improving everyone’s mental health.

1.            Communication. When individuals with anxiety think about emergencies like this, they typically dwell on the “what ifs” or worst-case scenarios.
What if I can’t get out of the house?”
What if my mom dies?”
What if I can’t get to my children in time?”
What if my house gets destroyed and I lose everything?”  
Getting stuck on the “what ifs” is the emotional control center of your brain running amok.  The best way to combat this is to engage the other side of your brain: logic and problem-solving—the “what is” part of your brain. When you take the time to thoughtfully and carefully consider, contemplate, and then create a systematic, step-by-step safety plan, and then explain and teach it in a family meeting format, it rockets brains into logical/problem-solving mode.  A step-by-step plan eliminates the focus on the “what if” and gives everyone an instruction manual and action plan for dealing with the “what is.” Also, the safety plan family meeting is a prime opportunity to communicate, learn more about the specific fears of everyone, and gives you opportunity to support and address those fears in a tangible way. 

2.            Visualization. Visualization is a coping strategy most often used with anxiety, but it’s useful when crafting and implementing your safety plan.  Visualization uses the mind’s eye to create a safe space to in which to be present when anxious thoughts arise.  Many of my clients who are most successful with this strategy are visual learners.  Many people just process and organize information better through pictures, colors, words, or maps.  When crafting and teaching your safety plan, create a visual. Draw a map. Print out pictures of your home. Use arrows to point toward exits. For children who are not yet able to read, step-by-step safety plans should be laid out as pictures. Talk everyone through the plan. Have them visualize themselves lying in their beds when that smoke detector sounds (or security alarm alerts or the tornado siren wails), and successfully getting to safety by following the plan precisely as it’s laid out. For adults and older children, write out the step-by-step plan and post it in a central location in your home.

Example Home Safety Plan

3.            Practice. Emergency situations activate the body’s threat system. Pupils dilate, heart rate surges, blood pressure increases, digestion slows, and adrenaline is released, readying the body for fight or flight. These responses are helpful but can give way to panic.  Communicating consistently and regularly about your emergency safety plans helps everyone in the family maintain a calmer mindset, reduce the escalation of the threat system response, and avoid panic if there is ever an emergency. Once your emergency plan is posted, talk about it regularly and consistently. You and your family will feel the increased confidence with the knowledge that you know precisely what to do and what steps to follow. Regular, consistent communication about the plan will ensure that your family knows what to do if the need arises and will be able to mentally access the emergency plan when the body’s threat system is activated.  

4.            Preparedness. Now that you have prepared your family physically, communicated your plan effectively, and practiced consistently, what you have also done is provide a sense of security and psychological preparedness for the entire family. The feeling of security improves confidence in yourself that you know what to do to help keep yourself and your family safe. Being prepared removes the overwhelming impact of the threat response to a great degree. 

Statistically speaking, you will likely never have to deal with an actual emergency where you will have to put your plan into action. But even if you never do have to spring into action because of an emergency, just the simple acts of considering, crafting, implementing, teaching, and drilling your emergency preparedness plan to your family will make everyone feel more safe and more secure. Best case: your family’s mental health improves. Worst case: your family knows how to get to safety in the event of an emergency.

Resources:

www.safety.com 6 Tips on Making a Home Safety Plan for Your Family

www.ready.com Official website for the Department of Homeland Security offers a PDF step by step plan for creating an extensive safety plan

www.prepared-houseives.com Has guides to making a fire safety kit as well as how to create a fire escape plan

www.redcross.org The American Red Cross offers support for how to prepare for a disaster during the COVID-19 pandemic

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