I like to think of the nervous system and how we handle things in life like a cup of water and every time something stressful occurs, it’s like putting some water into that cup.
What happens over time if you don’t take any of the water out?
One of the biggest things to realize when it comes to managing powerful feelings, emotions, or images, is that often people feel like there is no where to put it - literally. We get flooded with information and become overwhelmed, especially over the things we don’t really have any control over (like a global pandemic).
What if I told you that I am giving you permission to put it somewhere, for now? For now, is the key aspect of this technique because we all have the potential to push things away until we cannot handle it anymore.
One of the most common unhelpful coping techniques that I hear in practice is people shoving things deep down somewhere within themselves so they don’t have to feel it. How do we usually do this? By avoiding it totally, distracting ourselves from the feelings, or rationalizing our way out of it. The reason I bring this up is that this technique that I want to share today has to be a balance. If this becomes the only technique in your wheelhouse, you will end up accidentally overflowing that cup of life. The goal of this exercise is to help you manage a moment. This is intended to help contain things that can’t be solved right now, not to avoid problems you can handle at the moment.
So how does this work?
The goal of a containment exercise is to separate yourself from what is happening and regain control. I use this a lot in practice to help individuals manage difficult images, memories, or feelings that are often associated with trauma experiences; however, I have also applied it to anxiety, unhelpful thoughts, or even stress.
An example of this that may be more day-to-day, would be when you’re trying to fall asleep and can’t stop your mind from racing about the next day or your to-do list, when clearly there isn’t anything that you can do about tomorrow while you’re trying to fall asleep. In fact, we all know getting our best rest will prepare us to engage the day more productively. The container is how you put your thoughts and feelings to rest until you’re ready to come back and work through them either on your own or with a therapist.
The process of this exercise is creating a space, usually using imagery, to place the distressing thought, image, or feeling, into a container designed to be strong enough to hold it there until you’re ready to deal with it. A key piece of this is developing a container that you feel has the ability to carry this information until you feel safe enough to open it. Some examples of this that I have heard people create are a safe with a code only you know, a backpack with a lock, or a Tupperware container with elastic bands around it. If you’re interested in trying this coping skill, especially if you are thinking of being a client and may need something “in the meantime” while awaiting services, this could be a great option. I have included a link to one I recorded myself for you to try and I am always interested in hearing what type of containers people develop.
With all the turbulence in the world right now, I hope this exercise can give you a break from the bumpy ride!
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