How to Compartmentalize to Reduce Stress

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One way some people choose to manage stress is by compartmentalization. Living in today's fast-paced world, it's inevitable not to come in contact with stress. Stress is a constant in many people's daily lives, and finding ways to manage it should always be a top priority.

You may understand compartmentalization as a defense mechanism that allows you to keep anxiety in check by separating certain thoughts or emotions from others, essentially putting them into different mental "boxes".

In other words, compartmentalization will enable you to mentally separate and organize different aspects of your life to prevent them from overwhelming or interfering with each other. 

Compartmentalizing allows you to focus on specific tasks or emotions daily without being weighed down by difficult emotions that may contribute to your stress. This leads to stress reduction. 

While some mental health experts caution against constantly using compartmentalization to manage stress, identifying pitfalls such as emotional suppression and the risk of straining relationships. However, when done correctly, compartmentalization can be an effective and valuable tool in stress management. 

This article will explore the ins and outs of compartmentalization, its benefits, potential pitfalls, and how to use it effectively to manage stress.

What Does It Mean to Compartmentalize?

When you compartmentalize, you essentially divide your thoughts, emotions, or experiences into distinct mental "compartments" to manage them more efficiently. This enables you to concentrate on one aspect of your life at a time. 

Compartmentalization isn't always a conscious choice; sometimes, it occurs unconsciously when you've become so overwhelmed with an emotion or situation.

An Example of Compartmentalization

To better understand compartmentalizing, imagine you are going through a personal crisis, such as a horrible breakup. While you recognize that you are dealing with heavy emotions, you still manage to show up every day and perform well at work. 

By doing this, you're able to keep the emotions and stress related to your breakup from negatively affecting your performance at work. You essentially place your personal problems into one mental "box" and your professional responsibilities into another, and do not allow the contents of one box to spill over into the other.

Is It Healthy to Compartmentalize Your Emotions?

Like many defense mechanisms, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of compartmentalizing your emotions.

Compartmentalization Can Be Healthy

If used in moderation and combined with self-reflection and healthy emotional processing, compartmentalizing emotions can be a healthy way to manage stress levels. 

Compartmentalization allows you to temporarily set aside the burden of dealing with heavy emotions, giving way to mental clarity and helping to prevent emotional burnout.

When Compartmentalization Becomes Unhealthy

Consistently compartmentalizing without addressing the root causes of your emotional turmoil can be detrimental to your mental health and personal relationships. While effective, using this technique to manage stress constantly can quickly cause you to repress emotions instead of dealing with them. 

To compartmentalize healthily, it's crucial to remain self-aware, checking in with yourself often so you don't neglect to deal with people and situations important to you. It's also helpful to reach for other stress management tools other than compartmentalizing.

Benefits of Compartmentalizing

There are many benefits to using compartmentalization to manage your stress. Some of them include:

  • Stress reduction: Compartmentalization helps you manage your stress by allowing you to tackle one issue at a time and not be overwhelmed by multiple stressors. This approach can lead to a more balanced emotional state and improved emotional resilience in high-stress situations.
  • Improved focus and productivity: By shelving emotions, feelings, and thoughts you are not ready to address, you are able to concentrate better on other pressing tasks. This leads to increased efficiency and productivity. This technique can be particularly beneficial if you live or work in a high-stress environment.
  • Improved work-life balance: Compartmentalizing allows you to separate your professional and personal lives, preventing one from negatively impacting the other. By creating these mental boundaries, you get to enjoy your relaxation time without being preoccupied with work-related stress.
  • Better decision-making: Compartmentalizing can help you make more rational and informed decisions by preventing emotions from clouding your judgment. Setting emotions aside temporarily allows you to approach problems with clarity and make choices based on logic and reason.

When used correctly, this stress management technique can help you better deal with stressors in your life.

Potential Pitfalls of Compartmentalizing

Unfortunately, compartmentalizing is not without its pitfalls. Some of the most important to look out for include the following:

  • Emotional suppression: When you over-rely on compartmentalization, this can lead to suppressing your emotions, which can have long-term adverse effects on your mental health. Unresolved feelings may resurface as anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders.
  • Avoidance of underlying issues: If not managed, compartmentalizing can quickly become a way of avoiding emotional confrontation and resolution. This avoidance can prolong emotional distress and hinder your personal growth.
  • Strained relationships: Using this technique habitually could create emotional barriers between you and your loved ones, hindering communication and connection. In the long run, this can lead to feelings of isolation and damage interpersonal relationships. 

Being aware of the potential pitfalls of compartmentalizing is the first step to healthily using the stress management technique.

How to Compartmentalize in a Healthy Way

When you master how to compartmentalize healthily, this technique can become a valuable tool to help you manage stress and cope with complex emotions.

Here are tips to help you learn how to compartmentalize in a healthy way.

Draw Your Boundaries and Prioritize

The first step is to draw your boundaries and prioritize. Establish clear boundaries between different aspects of your life and prioritize tasks based on their urgency and importance.

This will help you stay organized and prevent different parts of your life from interfering with each other.

Schedule Time for Self-Reflection

It helps to schedule dedicated time for self-reflection. Allocating time for introspection and emotional processing allows you to address underlying issues and maintain emotional balance.

You can do this by regularly engaging in activities such as journaling, meditation, or talking with trusted friends and loved ones who can encourage your self-awareness and emotional healing.

Seek Help from a Mental Health Professional

As mentioned, if left unchecked, compartmentalizing can result in potential pitfalls that are detrimental to your emotional health in the long run.

If you're relying on compartmentalization too much, consider seeking the assistance of a mental health professional.They are equipped with the tools and expertise to guide you through navigating emotional challenges and developing healthy coping strategies.

It's crucial to remember that compartmentalization should only be used as a temporary tool. This technique is not meant to be a permanent solution to your life's emotional challenges and daily stressors. It should only be used to manage overwhelming situations, with the understanding that you need to revisit processing and resolve the emotions you shelve.

This is necessary for your long-term well-being.


Compartmentalizing is a valuable technique for managing stress and maintaining focus. It can improve your mental health and overall well-being when used in moderation and combined with emotional processing and self-reflection. 

However, it is essential to recognize the potential pitfalls and be mindful of striking the right balance to ensure that compartmentalization remains a healthy coping strategy for you. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between compartmentalizing and repressing?

    Compartmentalizing involves consciously setting aside certain thoughts or emotions to focus on a specific task. At the same time, repression is an unconscious process of suppressing thoughts, feelings, or memories you find very difficult or painful. 
    When used appropriately, compartmentalizing can be a healthy coping mechanism; on the other hand, repression often leads to unresolved emotional issues and poor mental health.

  • Why is compartmentalizing unhealthy?

    Compartmentalizing itself is not innately harmful. It becomes unhealthy when overused or relied upon as the sole coping mechanism, leading to emotional suppression, avoidance of underlying issues, and strained relationships. Striking a balance between compartmentalizing and emotional processing is crucial for maintaining your mental well-being.

  • Is compartmentalizing a trauma response?

    Compartmentalizing can indeed be a trauma response. Many people use it as a coping mechanism to temporarily set aside overwhelming emotions or memories associated with traumatic experiences. In such cases, compartmentalizing can provide relief and allow the individual to function in everyday life.

    However, it is essential to work through the trauma with the help of a mental health professional to ensure long-term healing and emotional well-being.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Compartmentalization

  2. American Psychological Association. Defense processes can be conscious or unconscious.

  3. Bowins BE. Therapeutic dissociation: Compartmentalization and absorption. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. 2012;25(3):307-317.

  4. Knowledge at Wharton. Why being able to compartmentalize is a key ingredient for risk-taking.

  5. Békés V, Ferstenberg YA, Perry JC. Compartmentalization. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2018:1-5.

By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.