Stress: Handling it with a compartmentalized life

Life is like a sailing ship. A ship that is sea-worthy has a number of separate compartments. When in stormy weather, one compartment might get damaged but will not cause the boat to sink. When the bottom compartments take water, the second and top decks keep the ship afloat. If the second level also goes, the top decks still keep the structure afloat. Only when water invades all levels of the vessel, does the ship sink.

This image applies wonderfully to your life: you are the captain of the boat. As you identify the compartments that make up your daily activities and your life, and ensure that each is balanced or at least minimally catered for, they keep your life afloat. They absorb the stress of any one damaged area.

While areas may overlap for some people, the lower deck usually comprises work, major undertakings and projects (such as education, purchasing a home and more), partner and social circle. The middle level’s compartments are partner, children, house, family, friends and community, pets, holidays or leisure time and learning something new. The upper deck includes diet, health, physical exercise, spirituality and time alone, indoor and outdoor hobbies.

If one or more of the lower and middle level compartments or even whole levels get flooded, it is then another area that might help you shed some of the stress. For instance, you could rely on family and friends when you have work-related problems or a severe dispute with your partner.

The upper deck is critical. Looking after your health and turning to your all-consuming hobbies such as music will allow you to get some respite away from one stressful area. That stress would be absorbed by another compartment, even if only momentarily.

Try this simple exercise: review the areas of your life; the list given above is an example. Draw a boat, such as the one below. The size of a compartment reflects the amount of resources you dedicate to them. The number of compartments you choose will reveal the areas of your life. Maybe you have a particular area that is not reflected in the drawing below: just add it! boat 1

Ask yourself how much time you dedicate to each compartment, and how well you cater for each area. Fill in details for each compartment. Perhaps you have multiple hobbies or sports activities.

Remember that it is the energy and time you invest in the upper deck areas that will keep you going if your lower and middle levels get flooded and while you take steps to pump that water out. This ability to draw on various resources is what ultimately helps you keep your balance during times of stress and perhaps crisis. If you find that you have too little compartments, now might be a good time to think about what you want to create.

Adapted and expanded from Powell, 2009, The Mental Health Handbook.

Author: Pascale Aline

Psychotherapist & Performance Coach, I specialize working with tools for self enhancement, growth, productivity and healing (Biofeedback, EMDR, Mindfulness training)

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