The Toolbox Technique

by Christy Gualtieri


My parents live in a New Jersey apartment building that was converted from a house, and one of the neatest things about the place is the old-fashioned clothesline that strings from their top-floor sunroom to a tree across their yard and back again.  On sunny days, they loved half-hanging out their window to clip their towels and jeans to the line, pushing it out until everything was dry, and then pulling them all back in.  They swore that everything smelled better – and all around felt better – when it dried out in the sun than in the gas dryer that was set up in the basement.

I don’t know about you, but this month finds me absolutely washed out.  Once Thanksgiving hits, I feel like I’m plunged into an ocean of near-frantic activity that constantly churns me up and doesn’t relent until after the first of the year.  There are gifts to buy, school parties to plan for, travel arrangements to make, cards to write, and all-around mayhem to experience.  And while I generally enjoy the holidays very much, this year I just feel like clothes do in a washing machine: swirled around, unable to breathe, and then spun so fast I don’t know which way is up or down.

I need to dry out.  But how?

I think the best way is to start is slowly, and with some tools.  Not building tools, but tangible things that will help calm you, center you, and recharge your energy to make you feel like life is manageable again.

A few years ago, when I was greatly struggling with anxiety, I learned about something I call “the Toolbox Technique.”  Basically, you take some time to think about what makes you happy, and then you try to use those things tangibly to remind you of yourself and to help you feel better. For example, when I had to travel for the holidays, I used to bring a notebook with me and sit in another room, away from the other visitors, and write lists of things that reminded me of home.  It made me feel safe, and helped me to understand that the holiday season was a finite time with a beginning and an end.  So one of my tools is a notebook.  If I was traveling, I also brought my own pillow with me, to give me that sense of comfort and to have that familiarity.

Another tool I frequently use is music.  Although my husband is the resident dish-washer in our house, on the days when I have to do them I almost look forward to it because it’s a chance for me to put on a pair of headphones and let the music drown out the noises of all the other stressors.

When I’m really stressed, I like to re-read novels I loved as kid.  Some folks like to eat comfort food, paint their nails, light scented candles, or go for walks.  The great thing about the Toolbox Technique is that you get to decide the tools that work for you.  Of course, you want to stay clear of things that are harmful – if you have a problem with alcohol, for example, you don’t want to have shot glasses in your toolbox – but if you give yourself the time and space to figure out what makes you the most happy, I bet you can find a great deal of things that bring you joy.

I wish you the best of luck during this busy time of year!

Until next time, be well!

Christy GualtieriChristy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and son, blogs at, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health!