How to Better Understand Your Stress Levels [Illustrated]

Could you be near your breaking point, unaware that you are dealing with stress overload?

As illustrated, cups and glasses have differing storage capacity; similarly, our internal capacity to handle life challenges and demands varies from person to person and is unique to each.

Some people may appear tough, yet have a lesser capacity; while others may seem delicate even though equipped with great capacity.

Yet our capacity is not set in stone from birth! Tackling difficult life challenges will gradually stretch our internal capacity, increasing our mental and emotional resilience.

Understanding your own internal capacity and respecting your limits plays a great role in determining your overall sense of wellbeing.

It is essential to identify where is your point of tolerance in your internal cup – passing which becomes too much to handle. This is the time for you to take a break and replenish your energy rather than accepting and forcing more into your cup. It is better to be gentle towards yourself, to seek support and to delegate some load to others.

This internal capacity is your buffer in life. It basically indicates how much stress, challenge, or ‘crap’ you can take in without getting intoxicated. Working with your capacity, and training to expand it, are essential skills for you to thrive in this ever-demanding life.

If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete. – Jack Kornfield

Stress Levels and Internal Space

There is a direct correlation between your stress levels and how well you function in the midst of life challenges. Let’s now have a look at the different stages you might be in.

1. Relaxed

Available space: Maximum

You can tackle life challenges in full power, and even go about helping others.

2. Occupied

Available space: Moderate

Your cup need not be fully empty. Some amount of stress and challenge is good for our well-being. It can work as a motivating factor and bring focus, enthusiasm, and alertness in a healthy way, and reduce boredom.

When occupied, you are paying attention to the task at hand. Brainstorming to find insights and solutions supports the development of your problem-solving skills.

3. Busy

Available space: Minimum

At this stage, you are accessing internal and external resources to complete the tasks at hand. If this state continues for too long, there may be a breakthrough and an increased level of resilience, or at times there may be a breakdown and a lower level of functioning.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. – Allen Saunders

unhealthy-sepitajima4. Stressed

Available space: None for a while

The cup is filled up to its maximum capacity for a while and you is left with no internal space.

The demands are hitting the limit of your current capacity. If the situation continues for long, it can gradually become unhealthy.

You might feel, at times without any fault, unable to resolve the situation at hand. Then you feel stressed.

Common signs and symptoms of stress gradually emerge in physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral aspects. Your body is intelligent – it is using signs and symptoms to communicate to you the need for making serious changes and to make self-care a priority. This negative environment is fertile for negative feelings and thoughts to creep in: ‘I am powerless, hopeless, and worthless. I am a disappointment.’ At the verge of an explosion or an implosion, and you may start feeling resentful towards yourself or others.

5. Over-loaded

Available space: Negative

The person is gradually losing the ability to cope and function. A full crisis is right ahead.

This state influences the quality of relationships at home and outside. It can also affect one’s physical, emotional and mental health, and lead to psychosomatic illnesses and pain in various levels.

Doctors who solely focus on the physical symptoms miss the bigger picture and the contributing factors to the symptoms. The approach of prescribing strong medication can interfere with the body’s natural warning system by numbing the person to the ongoing crisis, just to provide a quick fix. As a result, the problems continuously grow, and the one ends up needing ever-stronger neutralizers or medications. A vicious cycle!

6. Over-whelmed

Available space: ‘Did you just ask about my available space?!’

Warning! You may be very close to burning out!

At this stage, signs and symptoms of stress have become more obvious. The diminished quality of your relationships at work and personal life is evident. Things are starting to get messy. The mess may be obvious in your room and office desk.

One has already consumed most of the internal resources. It is rather unfair to expect her/him to come up with brilliant solutions for the overwhelming situation. Chronic stress, sadness, anxiety, depression, grief and dysfunctional behaviors are creeping in.

There is an urgent need to free some internal space and develop new skills. Yet, at the same time this stage is hardly appropriate for learning new skills. You may not have the energy nor be in the right mindset for it. So it is essential to find safe, healthy and effective ways to unload, as well as preventing additional inputs.

Surprisingly, the majority of people attempt to unload their burden through self-medication, or by taking refuge in alcohol, drugs, cigarette, and food. Or even worse: use others to dump their ‘crap’ by applying aggressive and abusive behaviors. These unhealthy choices end up becoming additional loads in themselves: pressuring the body, diminishing the cognitive ability that is most needed for problem solving, numbing the body’s warning system.

We can always bounce back from lower stress levels and emotional states. It is possible, even if not easy. The further down the track, the more effort and energy it requires to heal.

Don’t be discouraged! If the world has not been kind to you, at least, you befriend yourself!

Recognising that you are not where you want to be is a starting point to begin changing. – Deborah Day

Guiding Questions

#1 How full is your cup?

#2 What are you filling your cup with?

#3 How can you free up some internal space? 

Final Words

I’d love to hear your stories and realizations in the comment section.

Please help raise awareness by sharing, so more people can benefit.

This is the 1st post of a series. It is an invitation to look at your life and well-being from a refreshed perspective. My commitment is to support you long the journey. My goal is to clarify complex topics, so stay tuned.

You can download the free PDF to read at your convenience.

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You may enjoy reading my related posts:

Happy Conscious Living!

  • Hans

    I’ve lived with stress for several years without knowing what is stress until now. I am a very better person now. Yet at times I feel if not of those stressful experiences I would not have had the knowledge that I now have. Doing distance schooling helped me to know that we can search for solutions on the internet. I will keep reading. Thanks a lot Sepi, Giovanni, David and the rest.

    • Thank you for your valuable sharing, Hans. I agree with you. Stress is not necessarily unhealthy. There are lessons in each situation. I think it is valuable to be able to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy, necessary and unnecessary, helpful and unhelpful as we go through life challenges. 😉

  • Jeff Friedman

    Sepi I enjoyed the metaphor of the cups it has a zen flavor to it 🙂

    • Thank you, Jeff. The flavour of Zen – beautifully said. 🙂

  • Bree

    Lovely post. I found this easy to follow with interesting content. I am looking forward to the future tool s and strategies you suggest.

    • Thank you, Bree. I am also looking forward to future sharing. 🙂

  • David Gould

    Sepi the use of the cup analogy was really illuminating and I found the article really worthwhile personally. Your style is easy to follow and digest, and I like the way that you talk about allowing space. Thank you.

    • Thank you for the valuable feedback and your kind words of encouragement, dear David.

  • David Johnson

    Thanks Sepi, you have a fresh and unique way of describing the experience of stress. I’m interested in the connection between breakdown/breakthrough/spiritual awakening and awareness. Rising pressures and seemingly overwhelming demands can cause us to seek help outside our normal resources in order to cope. Personally, I have found help in Giovanni’s guided meditation and the poetry of John Keats. I am grateful to you both for your creative partnership and contribution. David

    • Thank you for the kind words of encouragement and the valuable feedback, David.
      I am delighted to read that Giovanni’s works have touched you. He is my husband. 🙂
      I will reflect and write on the connection between breakdown/breakthrough/spiritual awakening and awareness, in near future. Thanks

  • Giulio Bortolozzo

    Thanks Sepi. Interpretation of what’s happening and not the happening itself can cause our exaggerated emotional response to it (whatever ‘it’ maybe!). Your article reminds us of that truth (IMO). Thanks. Giulio

    • My pleasure and thank you for the comment, Giulio. 🙂

  • Skye Garside

    Great article Sepi. Simply articulated and great use of imagery to illustrate the points. I look forward to reading about your tools and techniques in future articles.

    • Thank you for the kind words of support and encouragement, Skye. 🙂

  • Very well written, Sepi, with great graphics and layout. Easy to read and a good resource. May I reblog this post so it’s accessible to my clients?

    • Thank you for the kind words, Dr. Susannah. Happy that this post can be of support for your clients. 🙂 Yes, please share with a link back to this site.

  • Christopher Ceelomon Closson

    Thank you.

  • Ian Springham

    An interesting and accessible article. I have previously come across the cup metaphor used as a way of explaining the positive capacity we have in our lives; with pain expanding to fill the space available.
    That aside, the examples, descriptions, suggestions and related links are very clear and helpful.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Ian. Visual depiction makes complex topics more easily understood. 🙂

  • Great post! I love the concept of being aware of how much available space you have at any time. When you are ‘busy’ it means there’s not a lot of headroom if things go wrong. Working on creating that space (meditation and mindfulness are great ways to do this) before stress hits means you are more likely to deal with the situation. We don’t always have control, but we always have a choice of how to respond. Thank you again!

    • Beautifully put, dear Emma. Indeed, living becomes an art and life seems to be pushing us to become great artists – mindful and aware. 🙂

  • Karanita Gheens Boling

    I think this has some valuable insights, however, sometimes, no matter what people do right, they cannot control the amount of stress in their life. And this is where the crisis comes in. I have worked in a school, and as an outpatient therapist. Stress is everywhere. Children may have stress because their parents work too much, or don’t have enough money even while working, to provide all the child’s basic needs. I like to do a needs assessment, as that tells me where the breakdown in resources is coming from, what in other words is the cause of stress. Adults have stress due to many factors. Work, bills, children, parents health, being able to provide for their own needs, and also meet the needs of others puts pressure on you. Older people also have stress but it may be due to health worries, financial worries, and worries about losing their ability to care for themselves. I like the idea of your cup, the more you can deposit in the cup, the less likely you are to become empty. Life is much different and more fast paced than it was 30-40-50 years ago. And ironically the things that are supposed to make our life easier often end up being just another source of stress. Social Media innundates us these days 24/7. Television is on all night, turn it on and you can find thousands of things to watch. Cell phones are both wonderful and evil, you are now available all the time, anywhere and anyplace to everyone who has your number.
    Going to work can be a never ending stressor, with internet, cell phones, laptops, iPads, WiFi, hotspots when do you escape?
    I worry personally, about what this world will be like in another 20 years, not just for myself, but for my children and grandchildren. I hate to think that someday, there may not be a quiet place left.

    • Life can become exhausting and stressful indeed, Karanita. It is worrisome how stress is becoming such a normal part of our life and we pass it on to the next generation. Having our stress levels in check can be beneficial. To be mindful not to add or accept additional stressors when/if we have the choice. In my life, I found knowing my personal values, de-cluttering my life from what is not really of my highest / moral values (but is other’s expectation of me), taking out / diminishing the consumption of phone, TV, social media, the news channel in specific, has been of great help as well. Learning to say “no”, setting boundaries, responding to meaningful and realistic expectations and meditation can be other personal development skills that help as well. 🙂

  • kate thompson

    The idea of ‘available space’ is a great way to think about the capacity we have for the life we choose. This is full of great ideas.

    • Thank you for the comment. I am glad you found it helpful, Kate.

  • Casey Truffo

    I love this post! These tips are gold. I think what struck me most is how sometimes I am so happily busy that I don’t realize the impact the stress is having (and that I am out of available space.) Nice job and thanks for sharing!!

    • Indeed at times we are running on empty for too long, while being busy may not be necessarily good or productive. Thank you Casey. 🙂

    • Thank you for the kind words of support and encouragement, dear Casey. 🙂 Indeed, our cup may get filled up to its maximum capacity and we will be running on empty for long, thinking to ourselves “What an amazing busy life I’ve created for myself!” Soon before the signs and symptoms of stress creep in.

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