The EMDR Container Exercise: Calming the Nervous System : Future Focus Counselling & Consulting

In the field of therapy, particularly when addressing trauma, it is crucial to have effective techniques that help clients manage overwhelming emotions and sensations. One such technique from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is the Container Exercise. This simple yet powerful tool plays a significant role in calming the nervous system, aiding in the stabilization and emotional regulation of clients. But why does this exercise work so effectively? Let’s delve into the psychological and physiological mechanisms behind it.

Understanding the Container Exercise

The Container Exercise involves guiding clients to visualize a secure, strong container where they can place distressing thoughts, memories, or emotions temporarily. This container is imagined to be safe and locked, ensuring that what is placed inside cannot escape until the client is ready to address it, often with their therapist’s support.

The Science Behind the Calm

  1. Psychological Safety and Control:
    • Empowerment: By visualizing a container, clients gain a sense of control over their distressing experiences. This control is empowering, reducing feelings of helplessness that often accompany trauma.
    • Safety: The container is a symbol of safety and containment. Knowing that distressing thoughts and memories are securely locked away can reduce anxiety and allow clients to feel more at ease.
  2. Engagement of the Imagination:
    • Mind-Body Connection: Visualization techniques, such as the Container Exercise, engage the imagination, which has a profound connection to our emotional and physiological states. By vividly imagining the container, clients activate brain regions involved in emotional regulation and stress response.
    • Cognitive Shift: Imagining a container shifts the focus from ruminating on distressing thoughts to a constructive mental activity. This cognitive shift can reduce the intensity of emotional distress and promote a state of calm.
  3. Activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System:
    • Relaxation Response: Visualization exercises can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for the body’s rest-and-digest functions. This activation counteracts the fight-or-flight response, leading to a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
    • Breath Regulation: Often, the Container Exercise is accompanied by deep breathing, which further stimulates the PNS. Deep, slow breaths signal the body to relax, promoting a sense of calm and well-being.
  4. Symbolic Processing:
    • Externalization: The act of placing distressing thoughts into a container symbolizes externalizing and distancing oneself from the distress. This can help clients see their thoughts and emotions as separate from their identity, reducing their emotional burden.
    • Cognitive Organization: Creating a mental container provides a way to organize and compartmentalize overwhelming information. This organization can help clients approach their issues more systematically and reduce cognitive overload.

Practical Implications for Therapy

The Container Exercise is not just a theoretical concept; it has practical implications in therapy:

  • Crisis Intervention: During moments of high distress, clients can use the Container Exercise to temporarily manage their emotions until they are in a safer or more appropriate environment to process them.
  • Preparation for Trauma Work: Before delving into deep trauma processing, the Container Exercise can help clients feel grounded and safe, enhancing their capacity to engage in therapeutic work.
  • Daily Stress Management: Clients can incorporate this exercise into their daily routine as a stress management tool, helping them navigate everyday challenges more calmly.


The EMDR Container Exercise is a testament to the power of the mind-body connection in therapeutic practice. By providing a sense of control, engaging the imagination, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and aiding in symbolic processing, this simple yet profound technique offers a reliable method for calming the nervous system.

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I am licensed to practice in Washington State and the following Canadian Provinces: Yukon, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.