I decided to practice self-care so I met with a therapist. This is what this new therapist has observed. The “cognitive stuff” is done. I know what is true, and I know how to apply it. That feels like a huge victory. What isn’t done? The leftover trauma.
What does this mean? I’ve explained in prior posts that I have a visceral response to hearing my mother’s voice. I’ll even get a migraine within a few minutes of hanging up the phone from a conversation with her. That’s all related to trauma. CBT can’t address this. These are body memories. Telling myself what is true or even knowing what is true won’t stop the release and subsequent cascade of stress hormones. It feels like the perfect time to begin dealing with what I could never reach in the past–these biologically lodged triggers. I want to further the healing process. This therapist specializes in treating trauma and uses EMDR.
Yesterday’s session was my third session. We are finally going to get started on learning some tools now that we have completed the intake. She began with a very basic tool called “The Box”. Another name for this tool is compartmentalization. When something comes to mind and you can’t deal with it at that moment, you need to be able to set it aside until a later time. Sometimes it is very difficult to set aside thoughts or problems that arise in the mind because they feel very pressing or serious; thus, we perseverate on them and whip ourselves up into a nice, foamy lather. If I’m not paying attention to my thoughts and practicing mindfulness, then I am vulnerable to this. Part of practicing mindfulness is paying attention to the flow of your thoughts however weird and foreign they may seem. Our thoughts are generally not linear; at least mine are not. Sometimes my thoughts might flow like this:
Setting: Driving in the car
“There’s nothing good on the radio. I don’t like this DJ. I don’t like the tracks he’s picking. Why do people go into radio? Oh no, I forgot to pay a bill! My stomach hurts. What if my credit rating goes down? What if I forgot to pay other bills, too? Did I forget to lock the house? Wait…did one of the cats get out? No. She was in the window staring at me when I left. Wait, I think Denise is living next door to a predator. There was a guy staring at me at her house when I was swimming over there last week. He was actually looking over the fence and watching me! Was that her neighbor? Does he watch her during the day? Should I tell her? Do I have a neighbor watching me? My dog used to bark a lot. I wish she were still with us. Oh gosh, it’s almost the anniversary of her death…I miss her.”
Thoughts are so random, and jump from one strange connection to the next. One word can trigger a new thought which leads to a new connection which leads to a new thought and on and on. So, when my husband asks me what I’m thinking about I usually tell him nothing because how can I explain this? I’m thinking about my dead dog and potential neighborhood predators, but not really because I’m really thinking about music playing on the radio in the context of a DJ and the tracks he picks. Furthermore, I might have forgotten to pay a bill. And, now I feel sad. Oh, and I feel slightly defiled, too, at the idea of someone watching me.
This entire scenario could have been stopped had I used The Box tool. Notice that as soon as I became anxious at recalling that I forgot to pay a bill, other memories associated with times I felt anxious surfaced. Had I practiced mindfulness, I would have noted that I was in the car driving. I could not address the issue of paying a bill at that time. I would have said to myself, “I cannot take care of this right now so I will set it aside by putting it into The Box. When I am able, I will take it out of The Box and devote whatever attention it needs to resolve the issue.” Problem solved. I do not cause myself further anxiety, and I now know that I will take care of the issue later. My amygdala can stop alerting me and go back to a resting state. This is the point of The Box. The Box teaches us that we can pause the Thought Train.
You can put good things, bad things, in-the-middle things, or whatever you want in The Box. You design The Box. My box is platinum and covered in sapphires. It has a lock, and I have the only key. To me, it is precious because everything in it, even what I don’t like, is valuable in some way. Some people choose to make a box. I have done this exercise with a few of my children. Children often call it their Worry Box because they have such a hard time letting go of their anxieties and perseverations. So, they decorate a box however they wish, and they write their worries on pieces of paper, leaving them in the box. They are free to come back to their Worry Box and look over them at any time, but, once the worry is in the box, they are to try to stop thinking on that particular thing. It’s in the box, we say. Try to think on something else now. It’s a very good way to introduce psychological flexibility and mindfulness to kids. For some kids, it works brilliantly. For others, it does not.
The Box. This is Tool #1 in teaching your brain to think differently as well as a tool used to teach you to bring yourself to a resting state or baseline.