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The God Box: transferring your troubles to a higher authority

Calgary resident Trena Barnes looks inside her God Box.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

Whenever Trena Barnes frets about her marriage or finances, she jots down her worries on a slip of paper and puts them into a small, wooden box.

To others, the container looks like an ordinary jewel case. But Ms. Barnes has designated it as her "God Box" – a container that possesses the magical ability to alleviate her anxieties. By depositing her fears and doubts, the 41-year-old Calgary resident imagines transferring them into the care of a higher power. (Ms. Barnes says she doesn't believe in a religious God per se, but in a greater spiritual force.)

"If you've ever seen a psychologist or counsellor, they say to you, 'Write a letter or note to yourself and either burn it or put it in the freezer.' To me, this was sort of along the same lines," she says. "As soon as I put [a slip of paper]in there, it kind of felt like it was taken care of, like I could unload the worry."

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Over the past five years, she's filled and refilled her God Box with all kinds of fears, such as "I'm worried we'll never stop struggling for money." In many cases, she's found solutions to her problems, but even when she hasn't, she says the God Box has helped her quit obsessing over them.

The practice is now gaining exposure, thanks to New York-based author Mary Lou Quinlan, who has written a new memoir called The God Box about discovering boxes left by her mother, who died in 2006. The notes she found, like "Dear Lord: Protect my good health – my eyes – my family – my dear husband. Protect Jack in decisions in his job. Protect Marylou and Joe in their jobs…," gave her insight into her mother's inner-most thoughts.

Along with the book, which was released in April, Ms. Quinlan launched an entire project, including, that will soon allow followers to share their God Box appeals. She also wrote a one-woman play based on her book.

The response so far has been enormous. Ms. Quinlan's book has received praise from high-profile authors, such as Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author of The Last Lecture. Her story, which has drawn the attention of major U.S. publications, has also inspired readers to start their own God Boxes, she says.

"So many people carry worries inside, and this is so simple," Ms. Quinlan says. While a journal is typically for recording one's musings, she says, a God Box is about putting worries in stronger hands, and letting go.

One needn't belong to any particular religion to use a God Box, she says. (Ms. Quinlan notes her Catholic mother "wasn't a holy roller.")

There is a scientific reason for why God Boxes may give people comfort, says Dilip Soman, professor of marketing at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Dr. Soman studies "embodied cognition," the notion that people's cognitive impressions can be affected by their physical states or actions. In a 2010 study, he and his fellow researchers found that participants could alleviate feelings of regret or failure by physically sealing up materials associated with bad experiences in a box or an envelope.

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"The God Box is a great example of that," Dr. Soman says. "The physical act of firstly putting something to paper almost lets me get it out of my system. Turning it over basically allows me to get some psychological closure."

When someone is distracted by a worrying thought, it can use up mental resources, he adds. "It doesn't let you focus on whatever else you're working on with 100 per cent devotion of energy."

Once those worries are filed away out of sight, however, they're also out of mind. "God Boxes do that – they basically psychologically distance [anxieties]away."

Neil Douglas-Tubb, a registered clinical counsellor in Victoria, who recommends God Boxes to his clients, says the practice helps people connect to a higher power, regardless of how they define it. That spiritual connection is a critical part of his counselling, he says, as it encourages clients to quit judging themselves and gives them a sense that they're not alone.

He adds that God Boxes not only help people develop discipline when they regularly use them, they also give individuals the mental space for solutions to arise. "Most of us operate with limited thinking," he says. "If I can't imagine that [a solution]s possible, then I'm toast."

Mr. Douglas-Tubb keeps a God Box himself, a converted cardboard Kleenex box, which he finds especially helpful for venting about problems beyond his control. "What can you do about something you can't do anything about?" he says. "Absolutely nothing."

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The dos and don'ts of keeping a God Box

Do keep it simple and easily accessible

"If it's something you have to go search and find, it will slow you down," says Mary Lou Quinlan, author of The God Box. "That's why it's helpful to just use any piece of paper, and not feel you have to use special stationery."

Don't hold back

There are no worries too large or small for a God Box, says clinical counsellor Neil Douglas-Tubb. Sometimes, it's the little things you fret about most.

Do keep your expectations in check

"It's not a genie in a bottle," Ms. Quinlan says. "The idea is not to win the prize, to get your way." Expect relief, not a resolution.

Don't revisit your submissions

Once you've deposited your slips of paper, leave them be, says Saibra Dowdy of Richmond, Va., who has created a mobile app called "God Box," available on iTunes. Her app offers a virtual God Box, where users can store their prayers and worries digitally. As soon as we take back our problems, she says, "we're wrestling with it, and the squirrels are running between our ears, and we're still trying to solve that which we cannot solve."

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