Resilience and Overwhelm: How Full Is Your ‘Container’?

Water pouring into glass from above and overflowing down the sidesSomatic psychotherapists often use the informal metaphor of a “container” in describing a person’s state of overwhelm or resilience.

It’s a simple concept: If Janelle is experiencing a lot of stress, and/or her system isn’t very resilient, then one can say her container is overflowing, or close to it. On the other hand, if she successfully deals with her feelings and the external situations that cause them, she would create more “room” in her figurative container and she wouldn’t be so vulnerable to becoming stressed out. She could also work with a therapist in order to develop affect tolerance and self-regulation. She would then be making her container larger and less brittle, increasing her resilience across many life situations.

The container can be filled by our response to events earlier in our lives that we’ve repressed and not dealt with. Researchers and clinicians working with intergenerational trauma believe our containers hold the trauma passed down to us from the experiences of earlier generations. Such experience includes but is not limited to systemic racism and oppression. The field of epigenetics looks at changes in gene expression (which pieces of our DNA strands are being expressed, and which aren’t). These changes are thought to be responses to the environment, either current or historical. On the other hand, our containers can also be filled by present-day, acute stressors that we’re all too aware of. In practice, it’s usually a mix of both, and they can be interrelated.

Sometimes it isn’t immediately evident how full the container is becoming, because we are experts at hiding this from ourselves and the world. When talking about this with a person in therapy, I’ll often use the metaphor of my coffee cup. It’s a metallic travel mug, and when I hold it up, you can’t immediately tell how full it is. It could be nearly empty, or it could be close to overflowing. (It’s just a visual example. No fair trying to gauge my mood in order to figure out how much coffee is inside me rather than still in the cup!)

If the level inside the cup gets too close to the top, it overflows easily. This overflow would represent having a “meltdown”: panic attack, relapse into addictive behavior, major depressive episode, etc. Sometimes this surprises the person, as they hadn’t been consciously aware of the rising level in their container.

Psychology is the study of human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It shares some overlap with sociology, political science, anthropology, etc. However, most clinical psychology focuses on the individual and their cognitive, developmental, marital, or family dynamics. After many years in this field, I would guess that the majority of what’s discussed in therapy rooms does not focus on larger cultural, sociopolitical, large-scale economic, or environmental factors. Or such factors may be acknowledged, but therapeutic interventions usually focus on the micro (person/family) rather than the macro (environment). In that sense, therapy can be a bit myopic at times.

If the level inside the cup gets too close to the top, it overflows easily. This overflow would represent having a “meltdown”: panic attack, relapse into addictive behavior, major depressive episode, etc. Sometimes this surprises the person, as they hadn’t been consciously aware of the rising level in their container.

However, just because we’re repressing something doesn’t mean it’s not affecting us and filling our figurative containers. The emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecotherapy assert that humans have an ecological unconscious. That is, since we are born of earth and our entire existence depends on our fragile biosphere (and the other species we share it with), anything threatening our planet causes stress and anxiety in us. Just about everyone I talk with has tremendous anxiety about the future of our environment, and for good reason. This often invisibly adds to the total “volume” inside our containers; and since people often tend to feel helpless about large-scale events, it may increase their tendency toward immobility and dissociation.

For some people, it might be a useful exercise to write out a list of all the things they can think of that could be impacting their stress levels. However, for many other people, if their container is filling up, then the exercise of looking at everything at once could send them into depression, immobility, or even panic (“Oh, my god, it’s so much worse than I’d thought!”). Somatic therapists are trained to gauge a person’s autonomic stress response on a moment-to-moment basis and intervene as needed, coaching the person in taking on a manageable amount at any one time, and using that experience to grow stronger.

In my opinion, the goal of therapy is to increase a person’s self-regulation, which increases coping, health, joyfulness, and myriad other desirable outcomes. People who are able to self-regulate tend to be more aware of their overall stress levels, including “whole-world issues.” They may be less prone to anxiety, depression, and immobility, so they can engage in effective self-care, including taking action to better their lives and the greater world.

References:

  1. Bell, A. (2016). What is self-regulation and why is it so important? Retrieved from http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/what-is-self-regulation-why-is-it-so-important-0928165
  2. Sashin, J.I. (1985, April). Affect tolerance: A model of affect-response using catastrophe theory. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 8(2): 175-202. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0140175085900089
  3. Shulevitz, J. (2014). The Science of Suffering. New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/120144/trauma-genetic-scientists-say-parents-are-passing-ptsd-kids
  4. Smith, D.B. (2010). Is There an Ecological Unconscious? New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/magazine/31ecopsych-t.html
  5. Weinhold, B. (2006, March). Epigenetics: The Science of Change. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3): A160-A167. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1392256/

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea L. Bell, LCSW, SEP, therapist in Long Beach, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ella

    February 8th, 2017 at 11:28 AM

    It would be safe to say that I currently feel like my box is totally filled to the rim with all of the overwhelm of life and I am not that sure how much more of it I can possibly cram in there.
    Work full time, going through a divorce, the kids blame me, trying to be a provider in the face of no other help, it is all getting to me just a little too much.
    There are days when I do not even recognize myself anymore and that scares me. I have lost so much, given up so much and for what? o have no one around me who even cares.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    February 8th, 2017 at 3:12 PM

    Ella, I am so very sorry to hear that. We all know that divorce can be one of the biggest, most difficult stressors a person can face–I think it’s in the top three on those “stress lists”. Going by what you’ve said here, your situation and the way you are feeling about it sound very difficult.
    Of course, I am not your therapist and I can’t give you any therapeutic advice. So I say this not in any official capacity, but only as a human being who’s empathetic to feeling overwhelmed–Could you use this website to find some therapy support for yourself? If money/insurance is an issue, many therapists offer sessions at reduced cost. Here in Los Angeles County, residents can dial 2-1-1 to be connected to a 24/7 resource and support line. I don’t know about your area, but many areas offer something like that. There are also clinics that base their fee on what an individual is able to pay.
    If you can’t get in to an office, some therapists can even work by Zoom (a form of tele-communication similar to Skype, but I’m told Zoom is HIPPA compliant). But please, consider actually getting some effective and consistent support for yourself, especially since you have kids. Kids depend on their parents to be well!
    Sending warmest wishes for resolution and relief.

  • ella

    February 10th, 2017 at 8:39 AM

    Thank you for that kindness Andrea. I guess that there are times when you feel like that is all you need you know? But I know, you are right, I need a little more support and I am trying to make a little more time to find that for myself.

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