July 19, 2024
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‘Safe Spaces’ and How They May Not Mean What You Think They Mean

On March 26, Jonathain Haidt’s latest book, “The Anxious Generation,” was released, providing detailed evidence on the negative impact of social media on mental health. We’ve all sensed this phenomenon for some time, but I think many of us have wondered if social media is truly worse than any other innovation that generations have experienced. The answer is a resounding yes. I read the book in April and this was the final straw that pushed me to log out of social media accounts on my phone, visiting them only for specific reasons (such as posting about a specific event in Israel to increase awareness for many of my non-Jewish followers) or listing an item on a neighborhood group to give away. I’d highly recommend Haidt’s book—it absolutely shifted my relationship to and understanding of popular, addictive apps.

As I loved the book, I decided to read “The Coddling of the American Mind,” written by Haidt and Greg Lukianoff about the way college campuses in the past 10 years or so are raising a generation of individuals with soaring mental health crises and with little ability to tolerate discomfort. I’m still in the process of reading this book, but it cemented my decision to discuss in my column the concept of safety.

So often nowadays we are met with what a colleague used to call “dead” words: expressions or words that are overused and have therefore lost their meaning. Even the term “mental health” feels like a buzzword expression that is being zipped around haphazardly. Individuals of all ages from middle school to adults talk about their mental health and at times do so with little connection to what this means. So much of our language includes repetition and regurgitation—whether that be from an influencer on TikTok, a parent, friend or colleague. As a therapist, I all too often overhear teens talking about concepts like safety or mental health in a way that depicts little understanding of what the terms mean.

As Haidt points out, so many college-aged individuals are now closing the doors on any experiences that could cause discomfort, citing that they are doing so for reasons of safety: canceling speakers or courses because the issue being discussed or individual delivering the program presents views or beliefs that could be different or damaging. He shared the quote by Hanna Holborn Gray, “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” The idea? As human beings we will need to be uncomfortable in order to grow. There is also a difference between discomfort and harm but in a world where people are reporting feeling unsafe left and right, it can be hard to know how to create an environment that will allow for investment in growth (and in the case of campuses, learning).

Why do I bring Haidt’s work into my mental health/eating disorder column? Because I believe each reader of this column has the power to make change—a change that can have a ripple effect. Life events can cause a shift in an individual’s belief system or even lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Life events can also be uncomfortable and messy, and people can cause harm to one another—sometimes intending to do so and other times without any malicious intent. I am proposing that we begin by describing our emotions and mental states correctly: When an individual is feeling unsafe, this can be from physical or mental stimuli. We can all think of physical dangers that would lead an individual to experience lack of safety. But how do we define emotional safety?

Typically if someone is feeling truly unsafe due to a mental or emotional trigger, the individual will often not be able to verbally communicate this. Instead, what has been coined the “reptilian brain” has been triggered to engage in a fight/flight/freeze response. When someone has been through a traumatic experience, the amygdala may have increased activity and it can be harder for our logic center, or prefrontal cortex, to communicate current safety. So, much of the time when people communicate a feeling of lack of safety, they are actually describing discomfort. This discomfort could mean unease, anxiety, anger and sadness which can be felt in the body and/or be experienced as a series of thoughts in the brain. But discomfort or unease is not the same as currently being or feeling unsafe.

Haidt notes the important research that shows that healing through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder actually does not happen by avoiding triggers (though they will likely need to be introduced in a therapeutic setting) but by facing, processing and challenging them.

I am not suggesting that we all dive headfirst into what feels hard without any tools to do so. I am suggesting that we consider the language we use and respond to. Using phrases like safe spaces or mental health can become hollow. Ask the question: What does that mean to you? What does that feel like for you at this moment? How would you define a lack of safety?

It is essential that we explore each individual’s experience while also moving these expressions to mean what they intend to mean. It is also imperative that we allow individuals to grow and practice their resilience by learning the tools to cope with discomfort, rather than avoid it completely. Sometimes that does require extra support and words of validation. But it can also require our courage to challenge one another—with belief and love that the other person can and will handle this and grow in the process. After October 7 many of us have felt unsafe and some of the time, we may actually need to recognize a threat of danger. But other times, our fear and deep emotions may be causing us to feel unsafe, when in reality we are safe and also afraid. It is imperative that we pause, reflect and recognize that our emotions do not equal facts, but should be looked at as prompts to process or plan.

I believe that we can all work together to change the way we speak—about a variety of topics—to create messages of resilience and strength and this may just need to begin with some discomfort (but not actual danger!) along the way.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Zucker is an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a metro New York consultant at Monte Nido. Zucker is honored to now serve on the board of Atzmi. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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