It seems that stress is all around – what happens when there are multiple things going on all at once?

The car broke down, the cat died, my son got in trouble at school, my boss is looking over my shoulder all the time, I can’t pay my bills, and an important deadline is tomorrow. Wow!

What does compartmentalizing mean?


Compartmentalizing is a coping strategy that allows our minds to deal with conflicting internal emotions simultaneously. Separating work from play is one example and folks who deal with trauma often use this coping strategy.

Yes, there is such a thing as over-compartmentalizing, and that is why making a conscious choice about what you are doing is important.  These tips are best used as short term solutions as pushing stress away and not dealing with it causes its own kind of negative consequences.

When dealing with multiple issues (think CEO or a mother with many children) it is a great time to compartmentalize attention and relieve that stress right now.

Here are five tips that make a difference:

1. Stop — take a breath  to alleviate stress

– Who has time for that?

Steven Covey has a wonderful story about the woodsman who is busy sawing down a tree in the forest. The man saws and saws and is tired and hot but he keeps on. In fact, the saw is getting dull from the repeated motion over such a long period of time. Finally the tree falls and the man is done. Does this sound familiar?

– Here’s the question.

Although we want to finish and just keep going if we think an end is near, there are times when stopping is a better plan. Just like that woodsman, if you stop to sharpen the saw you will have a better tool to go forward.

Of course, your mind and body are your saw and you can learn to use them in optimal ways.

Many people stop breathing under stress and of course, the brain needs plenty of oxygen.  Just focusing on the act of breathing can have a calming action.   Stop multitasking and focus on one thing at a time.  (Our ideas about multitasking being a way to be more productive have been shown to be incorrect).

2. Getting ready to compartmentalize to overcome stress- ask three questions:

– How do I feel right now?

– What is causing me to feel this way?

– Are my feelings relevant to the decision I need to make right now?

These questions are the result of research done by Yip and Cote in 2013 about emotional intelligence awareness and anxiety. By asking these questions you can quickly get to a point where it’s time to compartmentalize your stress. If those feelings are not needed right now….away with them!

 3. Imagine compartments in your mind where you can put worries and stressors

compartmentalize to overcome stress_2
Focus on using compartments to overcome stress and isolate them there

There can be a spillover effect where the emotions of dissimilar issues get mixed together.  For example separating work stress from family stress is a good plan or like the woman who came home from work frustrated we might kick the family pet.  Do one thing at a time.

Be creative and decorate your compartments, if you like, so that even as you imagine them they are serving a useful function for you and safely dissipating energy from that stress.

– Be disciplined

Once you put a worry or stress in a compartment, leave it there and get back to what is beneficial and possible for you right now.  Later you can plan to visit the stressor once again when you are in a calmer state of mind and can assess what is happening and what is not. Take out those stresses and worries and deal with them proactively with extreme focus for only a short period of time.

When you deal with the worries and stressors in the compartments it is useful to adopt the perspective of being what psychologists call “hardy.” Hardy folks deal with stress in a way that does not lead to illness.

– There are three steps to do this, from Kobasa (1979):

1) Involve yourself in whatever you are doing.

2) Believe and act as if you can influence the course of events.

3) Expect that change is normal in life and leads to personal growth.

 5. “Say ‘no’ to things that don’t deserve a compartment”.  For the compartments  you do have: open, focus on them  and close them

“Your ability to compartmentalize, prioritize, and focus enough time on each area in order to make incremental progress towards a conclusion will be your most important skill set to achieve significant success.” – Blair, 2012.

– People are using these skills every day and you can too.

A major theme in stress management books today is the conclusion that “you have more control over yourself than you have ever realized.” – Greenberg, 2013.

Compartmentalizing your stress is a great way to exercise that control right now!  (And perhaps less compartments will be needed in your future).

Remember to stop and breath

Separate your feelings/emotions from the decision at hand.  Create customized compartments for thoughts and feelings that need to be dealt with later and then deal with them one at a time in short bursts of time and energy.  Practice the skill of being “hardy” as you deal with life, and fewer compartments will be needed down the road.

Write me a note on how you have been able to use these tips on your stress and be part of the ever increasing population learning to deal with stress in practical ways that work.

What a great gift to give to yourself and those you love!

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