When people work through traumatic events, their brains process what has happened so the person can begin healing from those events. While they are healing, the brain brings up intrusive thoughts, such as flashbacks and nightmares. The natural tendency is to push those intrusive thoughts away because they can be highly distressing. The brain’s ability to do this can be used to the person’s benefit, so that the intrusive thoughts and distress can be safely “contained” until the person is in a better situation to handle them.

For me, particularly after I have done EMDR, containing these distressing thoughts between therapy sessions is important in order to function. This is done through a container exercise. You visualize a container – a wooden box, a dumpster, a cardboard box, a Tupperware bowl, or whatever you want it to be.

Your container needs a lid, which only you can open or close. It needs to be super strong to hold in all those shitty things you will set aside for the moment. The container is imaginary, so you get to choose how big or small it is, what the lid looks like, how it opens and closes, etc.

Then, you let all that shit that’s distressing you – emotions, thoughts, sensations, images, memories, flashbacks – go into the container. That distressing and/or traumatic shit is then contained until you are in a calm, safe place where you can open the container back up and process the information.

Sounds easy, right?

I tried the container exercise in therapy, but was unsuccessful. My problem is I “see” everything. So, if I’m telling you a story, I’m seeing it in my head and am describing what I “see.” Whenever I write anything, I’m “seeing” it in my head before I ever put pen to paper.

To try and put a distressful thought into an imaginary container means I have to “see” it first. This makes the situation worse because placing anything in the container can accidentally trigger a flashback.

Another option, which has helped me, is to make an actual container. My container is a small, wooden box with the Millennium Falcon carved onto it. I write what is happening on a piece of paper and physically place it in the box. When I’m at home, I use small Post-it notes. Since I always carry a small notebook with me, I can write the distressing thought down, fold it up, put it in my wallet, and put it aside and place it in my container when I get home. I can then access the container at home in a safe place and begin to process what’s inside.

When my therapist provided the option of an actual container, I realized I have been doing a version of this exercise most of my life. I haven’t quite figured out why, but when I put things down on paper, it’s like that information is passing out of my body and onto a piece of paper and it becomes a physical manifestation of whatever is going on. It becomes something tangible I can see and not “see.”

Once that happens, the information, regardless of whether it’s a story, flashback, nightmare, or something else, is contained on that paper. I can then walk away from it until such a time it is safe to revisit and process it.

Sometimes, I shred the paper. Sometimes I write a story. Sometimes, I write a story and post it on my blog. Sometimes, I write in my journal. There is no right or wrong way to process the information.

For the past year, in an effort to make it possible to read the news, I developed my own container for dealing with news stories. It consists of cutting and pasting the website of the article into a file on my computer, saving the file, and closing the file. The thought is I will go back to it when I feel safe enough to do so and possibly write something about the topic.

I have a solid window from late January until mid-May where I can process a lot of things I normally can’t get to in the Fall. I try to get as much writing as I can during this time knowing one day I say, “Oh shit. It’s October,” and not have my trauma bother me.

I think my brain is telling me to pull out my container files on my computer and get writing.

One of the most important aspects I have worked through with these files is whether I could still write here on my website, do my job, pull off a huge project I’m trying to get started, and a worry about what other people think. I needed to get back to the point where I started my first website in 1996 – the point where I write what I think and not worry about how it would sound. I also had to get to a point where I know I always try my best and if people don’t like what I’m doing, so be it.

The small Post-its come out of my Millenium Falcon container a little at a time in therapy. I don’t always need my therapist to conquer them. I imagine the container files on my computer are going to drip out at their own pace.

I think I’m ready. I just need to decide which container to open first.