Safe Space and Safe Place: Self-Care and Compassion in a Time of Crisis

Zachary Green, Ph.D. and Fabiola Bagula, Ph.D.


“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Lao Tzu

The communications greet us with hopes for our health and safety. What follows are reminders of the importance of “self-isolation” and “social distancing” as among the key recommended methods of assuring that the spread of COVID-19 outbreaks can one day soon be contained, our way of doing our part to “flatten the curve”. The behaviors associated with these terms are important. The choice of these terms is unfortunate and, at this point, will take a great effort to change and restore. This paper invites us to recognize that this pandemic will require us to be other than isolated and distant in how we think and view one another. We need each other to find pro-social means, albeit virtual, to close the social gaps of necessary imposed distancing to find new ways of remaining connected. We endorse movements like #spatialsolidarity, #alonetogether and analyses by Larry Hirschhorn and others that are seeking and promoting alternative language for our individual and collective behavior in this moment. Our offerings and arguments for the use of other words are meant as suggestions for consideration. We are open to whatever else may emerge and take root among us. We begin with an invitation to use finding a Safe Place and maintaining Safe Space as one proposal for such alternative language — and as a way to begin the conversation with each about how we can be safe and healthy — together.


There are numerous strong recommendations by authorities when it comes to slowing outbreaks of COVID-19. The focus of this article is on two that are currently called “self-isolation” and “social distancing” in many public health directives. Our purpose in this article is NOT to question the science and wisdom of the intent of these important preventive practices. Rather, our concern focuses on the psychological and social consequences of the language used to describe these necessary and desired behaviors. Currently, while we are living and experiencing a global pandemic that demands our attention towards our physical health, we are posing concern for our psychological health during collective global trauma. We need other word choices that do not exacerbate our anxiety. The mindset accompanying these terms might be currently impacting our survival behavior and are likely having unintended longer-term impact on our eventual return to daily social life. Looking ahead to the day when we emerge from our homes and once more engage in what was once the kind of day-to-day human contact taken for granted, our aim is to shift how we word these practices. Our concern is that left unchecked, the spread of this language will leave a scar on our collective social psyche that may live on for generations long after this novel coronavirus is history.


Those who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 or are a part of groups particularly vulnerable to the most serious health risks of the virus, especially the elderly and those weakened immune systems, are advised to self-isolate. The practice is exactly what its sounds like, isolating oneself from others. Doing so protects the health of others when us could be asymptomatic carriers of the disease, Self-isolation also reduces the burden on the healthcare system by slowing the rate of infection, better assuring essential services for those in potential need of hospitalization.

So what’s the issue?

The issue is more a matter of focus rather than intent. Most pronouncements that come out about policies related to the handling of the COVID-19 health crisis speak to the desire for people to be “safe and healthy” during these times. From a social psychological space, it is quite the opposite — there is little healthy or holding about the term “self-isolation” for the person engaged in the practice. Implicit in the directive is that you may well be a carrier of the virus, as may we all. Yet, isolation requires a level of psychological resilience that is perhaps understated and underestimated. The terms “stir crazy” and “cabin fever” are idioms that stem from the recognition that such isolation can evoke emotional distress. Anecdotal evidence about the rise in domestic violence during these times of crisis is but only one indicator of the challenge we all face.

We need only to look the classic writings of Erik Erikson on human development to know that healthy adaptation is characterized by intimacy in young adulthood and a sense of “ego integrity” as we grow older. When this intimacy is thwarted, a crisis characterized by isolation is precipitated. By calling this pro-healthy behavior “self-isolation” requires those who may already lack intimacy or are in fact vulnerable to loneliness to confront what they most psychologically fear. Similarly, elders who are not able to experience a strong sense of personal integrity in mind and body can fall rapidly into despair. Increasingly before the coronavirus pandemic, studies were already showing a strong relationship between isolation, loneliness and depression at epidemic levels among seniors. These factors are believed to be further linked to higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease, more rapid cognitive decline, reduced immune system functioning, and greater rates of premature death. In other words, isolation also makes the elderly more susceptible to the ravages of the virus — even without directing this population to practice “self-isolation.”

For the rest of us, “self-isolation” is not the same as the solitude of the monk who has taken a vow of silence and seeks the life of a hermit. The speed at which we have been required to engage practices of “self-isolation” more likely conjure up in some extreme cases associations to solitary confinement. Headlines use the term “lockdown” most associated with prison life as well to describe what is expected of the populace of communities, cities and states. Invariably, these directives include recommendations for “self-isolation.” Once more turning to research, we are learning that prisoners in solitary confinement show permanent declines in psychological functioning after as few as fifteen days socially isolated. Those with underlying predispositions for mental health issues, ranging from anxiety and depression to paranoia and hallucinations, are more prone to have these conditions deepen. The same may be true in the general population with the required 14-days of self-quarantine upon exposure and exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Those who lack social networks of support will feel isolated and maybe more prone as well the worsening of psychological issues.

Given the growing number of people who live alone, directives by state and local authorities to stay at home can feel akin to being imprisoned against ones will. Isolation, which has etymological roots in being as “an island” can deteriorate into a sense of desolation, or a despairing feeling of being alone on that island. In other words, the language of self-isolation is far from neutral. From a psychological perspective this terminology, designed to keep us safe, may carry with it the potential for immediate and lasting impact on mental health in ways that may be immeasurable. How might it be impacting our behavior now? Our social media feed is full of pictures of product hoarding and empty store shelves, as the “we” is pushed into the “self” these behaviors have already begun to manifest in isolating ways. Part of creating a safe place includes a sense of holding and being held psychologically by others — it is increasingly critical as we move from isolation to safety.


Social distancing is the practice of keeping a perimeter of two meters or approximately six feet from one another to reduce the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to others. Medical scientists following the pandemic believe there can viral spread from asymptomatic carries to the virus for as much as two-weeks after exposure. As with self-isolation, the importance of the behavior intended to be addressed by the term “social distancing” is seen as necessary to stem outbreaks. Once more, the issue is with the language and the psychological implications for how we view and treat one another by using these words.

Creating distance from being social, isn’t just about not gathering in crowds or with friends, it has implications for our expression of compassion and understanding. Again, as we are currently, collectively, experiencing global trauma, social-distancing is providing a shield for the physical symptoms of COVID-19, yet our language choice is heightening our social anxiety as we face this pandemic.

Our choice of the language of practicing safe space is borrowed from what became the norm for stemming HIV through safe sex. When we speak of “social distancing” the psychologically damaging emphasis is on the word “social.” Leslie Brissett at the Tavistock Institute in London and others are advocating simply speaking to “physical distancing” as an alternative. We believe such a shift begins to address the dynamic that we want to offer needs the notion of distancing and keeps intact the level of human connection necessary during crisis.

Anyone who takes a walk or has to go to a grocery store for necessities knows the new dance. In social distancing, the emphasis is on the view of the “other” as potentially the source of contamination. Social distancing creates a projective stance that they could inflect me. It allows each of us to walk around with our own sense of impunity and purity but rips the social contract of solidarity with our fellow human. We each become suspect. The power of #spatial solidarity as a term and as a movement is that invites us to move in the world collectively as one against a common threat to our health.

The extension we offer is to begin speaking of Safe Space practices. Just as safe sex allowed for their to be mutual responsibility for pro-healthy behavior as well as intimacy, we see shifting the language of safe space as way to communicate to one another mutual recognition that involves personal agency and mutuality in the place of language that creation distance and alienation.


Our large aim is for us all, individually and collectively, to focus simultaneously on our physical health and psychological health — without neglecting one for the other. As hashtags #alonetogether #spatialsolidarity #socialsolidarity are emerging in response to thwarting isolation and distancing, we support these efforts as nascent movements. They are the kind of growing efforts that are helping us to understand what we are all experiencing as we strive to be safe together. We can move up Maslow’s hierarchy again to use this foundation of safety to once more live into love and belonging. These are basic human needs. Our eventual renewed sense of esteem, our full embrace of beauty, and the capacity to live more into our greater potential as human beings depends a great deal on how we respond with resilience and love in this moment.

Here are some tips for compassion and self-care guidelines to live through our global trauma:

CONNECT: Stay connected frequently with those who you love in your life, at least once per day, including compassion for yourself in the face of collective global trauma

PRACTICE: Practice judicious attention to how information is received and shared during this period, turning directly to more trusted sources such as the World Health Organization for Center or Disease Control to learn current facts before sharing the latest social medial viral meme or video

STAY SAFE: If practicing “safe place” #alonetogether, #collectiveonly and “safe space” #spatial solidarity, #physicaldistancing during this time, make certain to share your choice of these practices with others and ask for their help. We are in this together to be ready to relinquish these practices once it is deemed safe to do so

DO NO HARM: Sharply confront any official statements by professional organizations, especially those with which you hold affiliation, which promote or suggest xenophobia and spread unfounded rumors that will be harmful to individuals or groups

GET READY: When the time presents itself, begin to reach out to trusted circles to initiate routine personal and professional direct contact

CREATE CIRCLES OF CARE: Practice self-care, care for our immediate circle, and care for those who we may know that need our support during this time

REFLECT AND BECOME: Meditate, pray, reflect, exercise, or use any other practices that give meaning and promote calm so as not to become numb to the reality, standing ready to support those who may become lost or unduly stressed during this crisis

DO SOMETHING OLD AND NEW: Make a list of projects that you’ve been wanting to finish at home and, maybe in your life… for instance, we made lists of the little things we’ve ignored that we just haven’t addressed and now is the time — that drawer, those papers, that closet, and maybe those former friends you need to forgive

NOTICE THE GOOD: Take time to notice what was good about the day and about this moment in time — ask yourself, “What did I love today?”

SEEK COMMUNITY: Seek communities online- many are holding sing-alongs, read-aloud circles, art classes, dance, poetry readings, yoga, and more…

SEE THE SUN: Stay safe and open the door to be with what is outside for a few moments; even if it’s just to get some sunbeams on your face

FIND SOLITUDE: Transform loneliness to solitude by becoming a proactive agent of these times; shifting attitudes that render us victims or helpless in these circumstances. But when help is needed, ask!

ASK THE QUESTION: “Who do I want to be through this moment?” per a question posed by Lisa Olvera, a therapist in Oakland

BE PEACEFUL AND PATIENT: Be at peace and patient with yourself and with others — in your safe place, practicing safe space


Larry Hirschhorn offers a scholarly and practical analysis of this topic with his paper: “The crisis of social distancing and the “Reverse Quarantine: Analyzing the current Coronavirus epidemic and a proposal for an alternative way forward.”

Jamil Zaki, as Stanford University psychologist is proposing the term “distant socializing” as an alternative to current language. An article with an interview on his thinking can be found at: istant-socializing-instead/?fbclid=IwAR2P-L8UJEaJxTrIpuwFWdsQGTtrWSGg62ORA3XUWIPpTE7laMa7aberHQk

Tarn Rodger John offers the earliest reference we could find on the term “spatial solidartity” in a tweet to @ottoscharmer where the Presencing Institute is offering a global forum entitled: Global Action of Intention and Action.

Mary Murphy Corcoran provides a wonderful summary from NYU on the impact of solitary confinement on the well-being of prisoners. It can be found at:

Archana Singh and Nishi Misra have conducted reliable research on the relationship between loneliness and depression among the elderly. Their work can be found at:

Photo credit SVILYK of Ukraine at Shuttershock royalty-free images

Zachary Green, Ph.D. is a professor of practice in Leadership Studies and a program director at the Nonprofit Institute, University of San Diego

Fabiola Bagula, Ph.D. is Interim Executive Director of Equity at the San Diego County Office of Education. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego.