To explain why the container exercise can be so effective, therapist Nina Firooz, LMFT (who often uses the container exercise with her clients), explains the concept of the window of tolerance, developed by psychiatrist Dan Siegel, MD. The window is essentially the sweet spot for stress that allows folks to function as they normally would. When stress pushes you beyond the window, though, you might be too overwhelmed to make logical decisions. “One of the ways that you can get back in your window of tolerance is by using the container exercise, which is based in imagination,” Firooz says.
While it may sound like the container exercise is akin to sweeping things under the rug, it’s actually a way of putting things away for safekeeping. The exercise can crucially help you pinpoint a stressor, and then know where you're placing it. This allows you to come back to it when you’re ready to heal or resolve an issue in question.
In the two months I’ve been using the container exercise, I’ve realized that putting things into my container has led to reduced anxiety and boosted productivity.
For example, I use the container exercise when I’m experiencing anxiety about work, fear about my family’s well-being, or a sense of helplessness when it comes to navigating adulthood. In the two months I’ve been using it, I’ve realized that putting things into my container has led to reduced anxiety and boosted productivity, because I'm better able to tend to whatever I'm currently doing rather than spinning my wheels about concerns I can't effectively address in the moment.
Keep reading to learn how to practice the container exercise for yourself as well as a few hacks I’ve made that you might find helpful.
How to practice the container exercise for yourself
While you can certainly practice the container exercise on your own, it’s helpful and advised to work with a professional who can help you sort through complicated feelings. But, if you don’t have access to therapy or aren’t comfortable opening up to strangers, the below therapist-recommended tips might be a good starting point.
1. Identify your feelings and pick your container
Start by closing your eyes and understanding what it is that you’re feeling. (After all, it’s hard to place anything anywhere when you don’t know what that thing is.) From there, “imagine any kind of container that feels strong; is as big as you need it to be in your mind's eye; and has a really tight lid that you have access to at any time, but won't pop out at you at any moment,” says Firooz. Once you know what the stressor is and have your container, you can imagine yourself putting those feelings in there so that you can come back to deal with them at a later time.
It's important for your container to have a closed lid and be a good size so you have complete agency over when those feelings come out. You can use the container whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed by your emotions.
And while this is an exercise based in imagination, your container doesn’t have to be make believe. You can also use a physical container (that's what I do!) and write things down to place inside.
2. Personalize the container exercise to fit your needs
When I was using an imaginary container, I often forgot what I placed in it. That’s unideal, says Firooz, because even though my conscious self might have forgotten, my subconscious self and body definitely didn’t.
During particularly hard weeks, I found myself loading my imaginary container but never actually coming back to the issues and thoughts I put in it—so they stayed in my body. And Firooz is right: The body does remember. I slept for 17 straight hours.
That's when I decided to use a physical container—an old eucalyptus candle—instead of an imaginary one. I’d write my feelings on a sticky note and place it into the candle. And even though I physicalized the exercise, Firooz says the imaginative heart of it remained. I still had to visualize my feelings going onto this paper and into the container. It worked better for me this way, and that's what's most important.
3. Schedule time in your calendar to go through the feelings in your container
Reviewing what's in your container on a scheduled cadence can be helpful because doing so prevents you from avoiding the feelings. This was harder to do when I didn’t have a physical container (my memory fails me sometimes), but it’s become easier since I started writing things down.
Typically, I’ll sit down on Fridays, post-work, and dig out the sticky notes from the candle. For the next 15 minutes or so, I try to remember what I was going through and what I was feeling when I wrote the note, and how everything turned out just fine. This not only helps me to manage my anxiety, but it also is a (very welcome) reminder that regardless of what I’m going through, I have everything I need to get myself to the other side.
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