United Front: System Safety Plan Course
What is the System Safety Plan?
TL;dr – Safety plans help us reinforce control over our mind, emotions and body by identifying both the warning signs that something is going on, and laying out a plan of action in advance for how we can try to handle it. Once we’ve written this up, it’s easier to write up a crisis plan (which would be used if we’re incapacitated somehow), and many therapists encourage clients to have a safety plan because they help reinforce stabilization — being more in control of our symptoms, mood, thoughts, and outcomes. We make our own plan. They’re not handed to us. You don’t have to have a mental health issue or diagnosis to use a safety plan. People with any issue that is escalated by stress or has triggers — such as migraines, allergies, asthma — can use a safety plan if they want to. People may review their plan on a regular basis (we’re doing it daily right now), or carry relevant information from their plan in a more compact format in their wallet or a notebook or journal. The hope is that even when we’re at our worst and can’t think due to panic, pain, or brain-fog, we’ll already have a plan laid out that we can refer to in order to feel better.
A System Safety Plan is a document that roughly divides autonomic nervous system activation (ANS activation or “panic mode”) into several stages so that y’all can describe your symptoms for each and make a plan for coming back to baseline. Since every person, and every plural system, is unique — this is something we as people in recovery opt into to help ourselves.
In general terms, these stages are broad categories like:
|System Safety Plan "Ship Language"
|Doing well, feeling good, Baseline, Homeostasis
|Safe Water Mark
|Triggered, Anxious, Starting to have symptoms
|Anxiety, Panic Reactions
|Unwell, Stressed Out, A really bad day
|Early Warning Signs
|Panic Cycles, Fear, Activated
|Pre-crisis, Distressed, Considering emergency assistance
|When things are breaking down or getting worse
|Batten the Hatches
|Overwhelm, Exhaustion, Frantic Panic
|Crisis, Rock Bottom, Total meltdown
|Total Burnout, Rock Bottom
This course covers preventing an all-out crisis (where you can’t even refer to your own safety plans anymore or care for yourselves). These stages are roughly like the klaxon warnings that might be associated with sailing vessels or spaceships.
On a ship, crew has “quarters” — aka stations — that they report to under different circumstances. When there’s clear skies and smooth sailing, they have routine maintanance plans and tasks to perform, when things get rough or enemies approach they have other things to do like manning battlestations, or trimming sail.
Each ship has its own culture and over time hones the stations and shifts that support the ship’s mission and culture. They’re a good role-model for system discipline and the fruits of one’s recovery labor, as well as a cautionary tale learned over centuries about how good habits can keep a whole ship’s operation afloat. So we continue to lean on our metaphors of a spaceship or sailing ship, hoist anchor, and set sail.
The technical part of our documentation in this section comes out of safety plans that have been around for some years (published circa 2002 under contract with the US government) and have been shown to help folk in recovery, neurodivergent folk, or folk with certain types of chronic conditions or disabilities to plan and cope better with whatever they’ve got going on. Why fully reinvent the wheel when the wheel just needs to be tweaked?
Of course the instructions that have been published are notably singular-centric, the example ideas or prompts are not really made for plural systems — but this doesn’t mean that the safety plans we make from those instructions are any less helpful for us because we make the plans for ourselves. We can get caught up in the language and original intent and end up feeling like we ought to follow their directions to a T. Perfectionism can cause us to create a limited, biased external-world-only point-of-view in our document, and neglect internal world issues and dynamics that can play into our safety and security as well as missing out on tapping into inner world tools or headmate’s skills, input or perceptions that can help to dig us out of the situations we find ourselves in.
So we’ve reworked the instructions into a series of exercises that y’all can go through in order to come out with a (plural, multiple, DID, etc.) system safety plan rather than a singular (system) safety plan. We based our instructions on the US publication called “Action Planning for Prevention and Recovery” (SMA-3720) — a public domain document so there’s no limitations on us doing so — and updating it for plural & multiple systems, using our own community’s language as it pertains to plural systems rather than singular systems. We use the United Front spaceship paradigm language & the ideas we have already introduced in Recruits, and please be aware that y’all will likely be coming back to this exercise to update your safety plan over and over again — no matter whether y’all are currently a functional multiple system or if y’all are still at the start of your recovery.
We’re rewriting these exercise not only for DID or “traumagenic” systems (folk who attribute their plurality to trauma), but for anymany who has a lingering, escalating, or recurring reaction of any type to stressful situations. A system safety plan (and the crisis plan one can create to follow it) will help anyone who experiences recurring and escalating troubles (whether physical, mental, emotional), and may face a loss of some type of control or be in need of medical intervention due to those troubles if they continue to escalate.
Thus a system’s safety plan can revolve around addiction, autoimmune disorders, sensitivities & allergies, autism, anxiety, migraines, chronic health issues, neuropathies, post-viral syndromes, etc. If you have any related issues that get progressively worse and could be helped by being caught sooner, where prevention is key, or where you might need someone to care for you if your issues or symptoms go unchecked too long and progress beyond your control — then this is the document y’all can build as a team to help out.
How to Use It (General)
Your system’s safety plan ends up becoming a document where you store important information about your system. The safety plan is for y’all’s own use. You can keep it handy, but not where others would get to it. You might carry it with you everywhere. You could keep it in an app on your phone, for example. Or you could put it in the designated sections of your United Front Ship’s Log Planner if you have one.
The important thing is that y’all can refer to it, update it, and use it as part of your own wellness plan on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. It could be helpful when onboarding new headmates and especially when introducing new folk to fronting, for example. You could use it to help teach them what your life is like when things are going well, or so that they are aware of the important things that help keep y’all’s life in good order.
So the plan becomes a way to help whomever’s fronting be aware of the clues for your system’s status, and what to do about maintaining good system functioning. It’s almost a captain’s cheat sheet or reference guide for how to maintain the ship and crew.
And this is why it doesn’t really matter what y’all have going on, it could be a good idea even if y’all don’t have trauma, immune disorders, autism, or anything that flares. Everyone has a bad day sometimes and could use a reminder of things that work to help lift their spirits. And y’all never know when y’all would have a really bad day and it might be nice to hear from “y’all in a better place” for some advice on things to try to help y’all feel better and take better care of yourselves.
To start with, we suggest some scrap paper, and for your plans to be most useful, use pencil especially if y’all are bugged by crossing out or have limited space — this way it’s neat and easy to update later.
This document is best worked on while y’all are in a really good place, and or as good as it gets right now. We suggest y’all jot a couple ideas for each section and come back to them all again later or as new things come to your attention and y’all want to add them to your plan. In fact, you don’t need to go through the course to get started; the prompts on the sheets can be a great place to get started, do a quick run through the booklet, jot a few things that come to mind — then move on to the rest of the course to add to each section.
Another good idea is to work on a habit of reviewing, tweaking, and updating your plan on a regular basis so that it’s kept up-to-date. We’re using a looseleaf binder because we have pretty long lists to add to ours [2023 update: we went the other way around and made a much simpler version that’s easier to work with]. Yours might be very simple. And that’s all perfect. It’s yours, all that matters is that it helps y’all.
Y’all can also have a full “master” system safety plan and keep a satellite “mini” version that’s more easily portable, such as a cheat sheet that’s folded up into your wallet, or a small notebook you keep in a bag or purse. The abbreviated plan can be a good starting point and can include other relevant information y’all might need if things get bad like a list of your medications.
If y’all lose time or have had issues with headmates fronting who are confused or non-verbal and it’s given you trouble in public places, consider carrying around a wallet-sized card or business card that explains what’s going on (to whatever degree y’all feel safe) and directs someone to call one of your emergency contacts so y’all can be safely assisted until y’all are able ta take care of yourselves again. Y’all can also have this crisis card laminated if necessary.
Some notes for when you make a more detailed second or third run through the plan:
Contents of safety plans are usually things that “make total sense” when y’all are doing well. Y’all may end up feeling like y’all are kinda stating the obvious at times — try not to judge it by your current ability to self-care and self-regulate or realize what’s going on while y’all are doing well. Consider instead how a new child alter might feel, folk stuck in the past, or someone who has been triggered to the point of panic.
It has been proven that when we panic, our brain narrows our focus. We don’t have a choice in this; it’s a psychological reaction to panic. While it might seem ironic, we see less options so we can make faster decisions in a life-or-death situation. Of course panic can happen even when it’s not a life-or-death situation! And that’s when that narrowing of perception, options and choices doesn’t serve us the same way anymore. Our situation and culture encourages us to be in at least a mild panic mode almost every day (see our Better Spoons materials for more about that).
The best thing to do is have a plan that was made when your options and considerations were wide open, and y’all could be inspired by what might seem obvious at the moment, and write the obvious-now down for when you can’t see it. Say one of the things y’all might write down about how to feel better is “If you’re hungry, eat.” Part of your head is probably screaming about that being too easy and how would y’all forget that! Or maybe y’all are nodding along. Just trust us y’all want to be that simple and simplistic — both. Trauma, dissociation, pain, illness, panic, shock, crisis…all strip us of our usual abilities and even the little things that might fall through the cracks could be key to our recovery from a bad situation.