The Container Method for Processing Trauma, PTSD and Intense Emotions

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The container method is a way to slow down the processing of them until you are in a safe place. It’s often used with other trauma-healing approaches like EMDR, CBT, or other forms of therapy.

Keep on reading to learn more about it. 

Do you tend to avoid thinking about difficult emotions or memories? Have you heard it’s unhealthy to just “stuff down” all the hard things? In this video, I’ll present a helpful strategy to use in order to slowly and deliberately work on distressing emotions and memories. And it’s a resource that trauma therapists use all the time to help people.

As a therapist, it’s very common for people to come in and tell me they have stuff in their past that they haven’t been able to heal from. They’ve dealt with it by avoiding it or never talking about it. And with good reason, because most people don’t have any of the tools to slow down overwhelming emotions, so when they think about their trauma, or get hit with a  big trigger, they try to deal with it all at once and this can be super-overwhelming.  So that’s why a lot of people get stuck just avoiding their trauma.  While this is protective and has helped them function in daily life, it doesn’t help in ultimately healing and lessening the impact of these past traumatic or difficult life experiences.

So in this video, I’ll teach you one of the tools you can use to help you process difficult and painful memories in a gradual way to move through them instead of avoiding them. It’s called the container tool, and it’s a really important tool for helping people work through their trauma.

A Client's Story

A client in her 30s recently began therapy for the first time as an adult. She spoke of years of complex trauma due to instability in her family of origin and in a previous marriage. She had faced abuse and neglect from her drug- addicted parents. She also had been in an abusive marriage for several years.

In her words, she was an “expert” in not dealing with her complex feelings of years of abuse, neglect, hurt, and pain. There were simply too many situations in which she wasn’t having her needs met or even acknowledged. 

But Freud said “Feelings buried alive never die” and all that unprocessed pain was really interfering with her life, and now she was struggling with depression and anxiety. But when she tried to talk about them, she’d feel so overwhelmed that it also made it hard to function. 

So what do you do to slowly work through these painful and distressing memories? One method is containment.


Containment as a psychotherapeutic strategy is a way to create an actual container in our minds that will be the holding place for our painful memories and feelings. 

The purpose of this tool is to create a place in our minds that can safely store the difficult memories when we aren’t yet ready or able to process those feelings

“Now wait just a minute!” you might be saying, “is Emma telling us to avoid our feelings?” Great question-  It can seem counterintuitive to stuff all the bad things into this container, but you’re not sweeping things under the rug, you’re putting them away for safekeeping- so that you can access them when you are ready to in a healthy way. 

The purpose of the container is to be a temporary placeholder for the difficult memories and emotions that we’re not ready to face. If someone broke their leg, they might use crutches or a wheelchair while their leg heals. The goal is not to use those crutches forever, just as part of the process of healing.  AND- in combination with the crutches- you use physical therapy to help the leg get stronger so that you can put weight on it again. We don’t want to use crutches forever, and we don’t want to re-break our leg by walking on it too soon. So we allow the bone to get stronger before walking without support 

With the container exercise- the goal isn’t to get really good at stuffing your emotions into a container, but rather, to give yourself some time and space to get the skills you need to be able to work through those feelings little by little in a healthy way, within your window of tolerance instead of getting overwhelmed by them. 

  • So, for example, you live in a small town and so does someone who has really hurt you. There’s a realistic chance of running into them unexpectedly. 
  • Or You served in the military, and loud noises, the smell of smoke, or the sound of a siren triggers a huge PTSD response. 
  • You work in EMS and you come face to face with terrible scenes at work. 

These situations could happen anywhere- you could be at the pharmacy, work, a party. You might be alone, or with toxic people. None of these locations are ideal for working through a fight/flight/freeze response. The goal of the container exercise is that the container can hold these triggers for a time until it feels less threatening to talk about or think about them. 

The other time this exercise can be helpful is when, like the client mentioned at the beginning- you have so much trauma, that we can’t work through it all at once. So we put some of it in a box, wrap it up for later, and chip away at one memory at a time.

This is a short term strategy that can help you get through the day until you can use your long-term strategies to process emotions. Things like getting support, journaling, and therapy. 

Like many therapeutic strategies, this is one where we caution “don’t try this at home”. If you have intense, overwhelming memories or feelings, please access a therapist whenever possible. And… I understand that many of you can’t access a therapist, Although this tool of containment is generally guided by a trained professional, you can learn to use the principles of it on your own when necessary. 

How Do You Do It?

OK, so how do you do it? Let me teach you. In this video I’ll describe how to do it, and if you want to practice the actual exercise- check out my other video- link in the description. 

  • Create in your mind a visual image of a safe secure place, it could be a locked filing cabinet, a chest with a padlock, a bank vault, a castle keep, or any type of container that feels safe and secure for you
  • Imagine your traumatic memories as items. They can be concrete things like a letter, or you can keep it vague, like a swirling mist. If you want, you can identify a traumatic experience you want to work on later.  If you have many, it’s ok to write a list of them, and put those in the container for safekeeping later.
  • Now visualize yourself putting those memories into your container. 
  • Then Secure the box- Lock it
  • You are in control of this box, you hold the key, you decide when to open it and when to close it. 

For some people it’s great to do this in a practical, physical way- whether that’s a journal, shoebox, file folder, post-it’s, or a therapy journal that they keep in their office. 

The goal isn’t to store these things forever, the goal is to empower yourself to open them up when you’re ready. With practice, and as you build up a bunch of skills,  you can do this on your own. 

Guided Meditation - The Container Method - for Processing Trauma, PTSD and Intense Emotions

Again, this exercise helps us slow down the intensity of these emotions and memories so that you can stay in your window of tolerance. This is the optimal zone where you’re able to work through memories, instead of getting overwhelmed by them or shutting down. 

As you build up your internal skills, when triggers and new experiences come up you’ll think “I know what to do with this. I can put this in a container, and then process it when I’m in a safe place- like with a good friend or my therapist”.

My friend and fellow therapist Lindsy told me the story about one client who walked into a session and said “My mom showed up on my doorstep last friday, I put her in a container, but we need to talk about this today”.

This client understands that we don’t have to process every experience in the moment, but she also understands that we do need to process it. For some people, putting these feelings in a box is the only skill they have, and when they use it too much, without working through their feelings, pretty soon, they have too many overflowing boxes. I’m thinking of police officers, military, EMS, Doctors, they get so good at putting stuff in boxes that they don’t realize they’re storing too many, and they’ve become emotional hoarders and all those unprocessed feelings are interfering with their lives. It’s not that the container is a bad skill, it’s that it can’t be your only skill. And I think that’s why Police, Miliary, EMS and Doctors have such high rates of divorce, suicide, or PTSD. They’re just over relying on this skill.

So back to opening up the box. When we process through trauma, of course this can be painful, so it can be best to do so slowly, using tools like grounding skills, nervous system regulation, willingness, journaling, and with the support of a therapist, interventions like EMDR. You can also build up resilience by adding in positive coping skills like exercise, talking with a friend, or doing a relaxing hobby. 

If you are going to use the container exercise, it’s important to schedule in some time to process through those memories and emotions. I recently read an example of someone who used the container exercise in a physical way for anxiety at work, she’d be trying to do her job and random worries would come up- so she’d write them on a post-it note and stick those notes into a jar. At the end of the week, on Fridays, she’d open up the jar and look through them. Many of the problems had already solved themselves by then. And the other notes, she’d talk with a friend and journal about them. By doing that she felt way less anxious during the week, and was able to work through her fears each week. She said her anxiety went down a ton. 

Let’s go back to the client from the beginning of this video. Her years of trauma with her family of origin and marriage made her a perfect candidate for containment exercises. She was able to start this gradually with her therapist. Some weeks she would have a specific memory she would like to work on. In other sessions, she would just focus on working through the events from the week. 

With the support of her therapist, she was able to face these painful memories and emotions in small, manageable doses. She learned skills to soothe her physical anxiety, and built up self-care skills to recover after processing trauma. 

By practicing containment in therapy, eventually she was able to feel comfortable using containment on her own, and eventually she really built up confidence in her self and her ability to work through trauma, because little by little, she was healing. 

 So, What do you think about containment? Have you tried this intervention yourself, or what do you think about it? Comment below and let me know what other trauma interventions you’re interested in learning about.

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