Understanding the Stress Container: How to Manage Your Mental Load


April is stress awareness month. Having an understanding of stress, awareness of our own stress levels and being able to manage that stress is paramount to our wellbeing.

Accepting that stress will always be there is also important. And actually, trying to lead a life completely stress free, as good as it may sound, is not very healthy either. Stress can be very helpful in motivating us. It can give us clarity and focus and can help to motivate problem solving. We need a level of stress to function. However, when stress is prolonged or too much it can be detrimental to not just our mental health, but also our physical health.

The stress container is a metaphorical representation of our capacity to handle stressors. Just like a container, it has limits. When stressors exceed our capacity to cope, the container overflows, leading to various physical, emotional, and mental consequences. Understanding this concept is crucial for effectively managing stress and maintaining overall well-being.

The Stress Container

Here’s how the stress container works:

  1. Capacity: Imagine your stress container as a vessel with a finite volume. This represents your ability to handle stressors. Factors like genetics, personality traits, life experiences, and coping mechanisms determine the size of your container. Some people have larger containers, while others have smaller ones.
  2. Stressors: Anything that causes stress—be it a looming deadline, a conflict with a friend, financial worries, or health concerns—fills up your stress container. Everyday hassles, major life events, and ongoing pressures all contribute to the load.
  3. Coping Mechanisms: Just as a container has valves to release pressure, coping mechanisms are the strategies we use to manage stress and prevent overflow. These can be helpful (exercise, mindfulness, social support) or unhelpful (substance abuse, avoidance).
  4. Overflow: When stressors exceed our coping resources, the container overflows. This manifests in a number of different ways and can be described as our unique stress signature. Chronic stress can lead to more severe issues like burnout, depression, and chronic health conditions.
How we can manage our stress container

So, how can we effectively manage our stress containers?

  1. Awareness: Pay attention to what fills up your container. Identify your stressors and how they affect you. Awareness is the first step towards effective management. It is just as important to be aware of our own stress signature. What do you do when you are stressed? If you’re unsure ask someone who knows you well. While you may not like the response you hear, it can be incredibly insightful as often we don’t realised we are stressed until after the moment. Consider also the physical effects of stress. Things such as hair loss, skin conditions flaring up, unexplained aches and pains, headaches and fatigue.
  2. Self-Care: Prioritise self-care activities that replenish your coping resources. This includes adequate sleep, regular exercise, healthy eating, relaxation techniques, and hobbies that bring you joy.
  3. Healthy Coping Strategies: Develop healthy coping mechanisms to release pressure from your container. Practice mindfulness, seek social support, set boundaries, and learn to say no when necessary. Talking things through rather than bottling them up can be incredibly helpful. Share the weight of the load and it can also help you to keep things in perspective. It is true what they say, a problem shared is a problem halved.
  4. Seek Help: If your stress container is consistently overflowing, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Therapy, counselling, and support groups can provide valuable tools and support in managing stress.

Remember, managing your stress container is an ongoing process. It requires self-awareness, self-care, and a willingness to prioritise your mental health. By understanding your limits and implementing effective coping strategies, you can keep your stress levels in check and live a more balanced and fulfilled life with positive relationships.