By Angelique Porter, LSW, LMT, Reiki Master
For the past decade or so, the mental health field has seen a boom in self-expression as an effective way to manage depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other diagnoses. The zeitgeist currently agrees that bottling things up, especially traumatic experiences, can lead to a whole host of debilitating and maladaptive coping behaviors (1). One well known behavior is addiction to substances, which can be often found in individuals who have experienced trauma. We now know that ignoring thoughts or past experiences won’t make them go away completely. Instead, the body remembers and will alert us to this imbalance, whether we want it to or now.
Growing up, I had always felt a need to hide my true thoughts and feelings from the world. I wasn’t ever told I shouldn’t, but I was aware of how others who expressed who they truly were could be reprimanded by society. I was extremely sensitive as a child and would cry anytime I would be yelled at, made fun of, or criticized. This built up a pretty solid wall between me and other people, which was fine for me because I still got to be me when I was alone. I had my own little world in my head where I could play in a band on stage, pretend I was married and in love, or dream about traveling around the world. It would take me until my late twenties to admit to others and myself that I did like attention, that I wanted to be loved, and that my emotions were valid.
This discovery unsurprisingly came during my first time attending therapy regularly. I had tried therapists before in the past but they never stuck. I feel that my noncommitment to therapy was that simply, I was not ready. For so many years, I had kept so many thoughts, feelings, and experiences close to my chest. I was uncomfortable with the prospect of being exposed. How would someone react to hearing about the music I like or how I can sometimes curse like a sailor? Would they make fun of me or tell me that I’m a terrible person? I don’t think it was a coincidence that my acceptance in being vulnerable came during my first experience with energywork.
I was exposed to reiki and energywork during my training in massage school. I was skeptical of course, but the instant I felt someone in my energy field, I became a believer. It was VERY uncomfortable. I wanted to get up and leave. My body did not want anyone in there, mucking up my perfect cocoon of energy. The next two days following this were awful. I was not prepared to have constant headaches and irritability. Gradually, my mood improved and for the first time since I was really young, I felt like myself.
I began to gradually become more vulnerable with my therapist and the people in my life. Dropping breadcrumbs of the inner workings of my mind whenever I saw fit. Unfortunately, these tiny little cracks began to unleash more hidden emotions. I started meditating regularly and the first couple of times was just me crying. It was raw and freeing, but another issue emerged. A flood without a method of stopping will surely destroy everything. I found myself feeling these emotions and expressing myself more, but struggled with putting them away.
I started the Expressive Arts Therapy program a year later to bring a type of therapy to my client. As a person who feels more comfortable expressing myself through arts than with talking, I felt at home. I quickly noticed that I enjoyed this type of therapy so much that I have adopted these practices into my daily self care. Something in the curriculum gave me a huge “a-ha” moment: the idea of containment.
I felt like I had stumbled upon the holy grail for someone like me who could feel emotionally charged or weepy at inopportune times. I have never resonated so hard with a meme like the ones of people crying at work. When I release, how do I get it to stop so I can get back to what I was doing? At first, I read and completed the art containment activity where it was coloring inside of the lines. This didn’t spark my curiosity at first until I got a coloring book and completed it after a very emotional day. I naturally carry the energy of others in my body, and sometimes if I’m not conscious, it will stay with me for long periods of time.
So this particular night, I did my after work ritual of lighting a candle and taking a shower, but the images and conversations from earlier were still in my mind. I sat down, put my timer on for 10 minutes, and just starting coloring.
I made sure to focus on the picture. I didn’t judge what colors I was picking or even trying to decided what I wanted it to look like. I made sure I colored inside the wide and narrow lines. After the timer went off, I felt like a weight was lifted from my body. I was calm and brighter. The energy I had from earlier was effectively channeled into my picture. I was able to go about the rest of my night without having these thoughts constantly on my mind. I had released my emotions and put them away until I was ready to deal with them.
While this is one way to achieve containment, there are many, many other ways to practice this. Visualizing a safe and imagining whatever you’re feeling being locked away until you are able to process it. I know some people like to get a jar and physically motion that they are placing these emotions inside. Creative writing, journaling, or speaking to your therapist are all other ways to practice containment. While this has been used for individuals who have experienced trauma, it is a great skill to learn for every day stressors or crises. Finding a place to hold these big emotions is just as important as releasing them.
1.) How Are Bodies Remember Trauma https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-elusive-brain/201812/how-our-bodies-remember-trauma
2. For more information on the Expressive Arts Therapy training program https://www.instituteforcreativemindfulness.com/certificate-of-expressive-arts-therapy.html