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Understanding how to compartmentalize emotions can be an effective way to manage stress, as long as you don’t bottle them up completely.

Stressful situations come at us all the time. Whether it’s an illness in the family or an unexpected job loss, stressors can be upsetting. It’s why people are hardwired to manage those feelings by putting them aside, says Nicole McCance. McCance is a clinical psychologist at Toronto Neurofeedback and Psychotherapy Centre.

Putting feelings aside is called compartmentalization. It’s essentially a way of coping with challenging thoughts. A defense mechanism, it allows us to focus on other less-stressful elements of our lives.

 “If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious or sad, then in order to function, some people may need to put those feelings aside,” McCance says. She says that people going through a divorce, for example, may compartmentalize feelings of sadness and loss. They may put those emotions aside until they can handle them. This allows them to perform their jobs effectively. Or a person who has just lost a parent may compartmentalize those feelings to avoid worrying their kids.

How compartmentalizing can help you

Keeping negative thoughts at bay can be very helpful in handling emotions. It can help you handle your everyday life without becoming overwhelmed. That’s because it allows you to manage emotions when and where you want to manage them.

“It can be a superpower,” says McCance.

Here’s how it works:

  • It helps you put stressors in different boxes. One way it does this that it can draw up borders between stressful parts of your life and less stressful ones, she says. For example, if you’ve got a toxic boss, you may not want to ruin your evenings telling your spouse all about him. Instead, you might decide to stop thinking about your boss as soon as you leave your office. That allows you to keep negative aspects of your life at work – and to relax and enjoy your home life.
  • It puts limits on worrying. “Set aside a specific amount of time a day to worry,” says McCance. “Find space in your life where you spend time feeling,” she says. “Designate a time to process emotions.
  • It allows you to release negative emotions. Allowing yourself to cry can also be a great way of releasing stress. “Take some time to reflect and cry,” she says. It can help release pent-up worries and allow you to focus on more pleasurable things.

How to compartmentalize successfully

If you’re struggling with how to compartmentalize emotions, take a time out, says McCance.  This can break the cycle of struggling with emotions and ruminating. She suggests a few things for people who find it difficult to put negative thoughts aside:

  • Engage in a cognitive task. This can be solving a crossword puzzle, listening to a language app, or reading a book. It can break the rumination cycle, says McCance, as the activity needs your full attention.
  • Interact with a family member or friend. Write an email, play with your kids or call your mom, says McCance. This social activity will stop you from focusing on something stressful.
  • Taking deep breaths can help regulate your state of mind. McCance starts her day with a yoga session to allow herself to breathe and to connect with her body.
  • Find time for exercise. “Whether it’s a walk, run or yoga, go do something,” says McCance. “This prevents rumination.” It also arms you with feel-good hormones that can help you handle stress.

When compartmentalizing can be a problem

Compartmentalizing can be a great way of managing difficult parts of your life. But it can backfire too, warns McCance. She says some people bottle up all emotions and fail to deal with any of them. Over time, these negative emotions can build up and lead to emotional distress. They can also cause physical and psychological symptoms such as:

  1. Irritability
  2. Constant worry
  3. Sleep issues
  4. Emotional outbursts

“Those are red flags to speak to a professional,” says McCance. She suggests that people who feel like they’ve stored up too many negative emotions talk to a therapist. This person can help prioritize and address the many pent-up emotions.

“A professional can give you the skills to feel better,” she says.

Lumino Health can help you find a psychologist in your area, as well as several offering virtual appointments.

Written in consultation with Nicole McCance, psychologist.