How to Better Understand Your Stress Levels [Illustrated]

Could you be near your breaking point, unaware that you are functioning from a state of stress overload?

As illustrated, cups and glasses have different capacities. Similarly, our internal capacity to handle life challenges and demands vary from person to person; it is unique to each. Some people may appear tough, yet have a lesser capacity; while others may seem delicate even though possessing a greater capacity.

This internal capacity is our buffer in life. It basically indicates how much stress, challenge, or ‘crap’ we can really take in without feeling overwhelmed. Therefore, it is vital to be mindful of our own capacity and acknowledge that critical line passing which indicates that we have truly reached our limit.

This is when it is necessary to take some time off to replenish, rather than welcoming or forcing more into our cup. It is time for self-care, to find a way to unload or to gently delegate some work to others. ‘Gently’ meaning not dumping the load onto others, but seeking support.

The good news is that our capacity is not set in stone!

Tackling life challenges in a systematic and wise way will gradually shape and enhance our internal capacity and our resilience.

Thus, becoming conscious of your own internal capacity and respecting your limits are essential to maintaining your well-being and preventing burnout, especially in this fast-paced 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 our stress levels and how well we function in the midst of life challenges. Let’s now have a closer look at the different stages you might be at. I will divide them into two main categories: ‘Healthy Stages’ versus ‘Unhealthy Stages’.

1. Relaxed

Available space: Near Maximum

From here, we can tackle life challenges in full power and even have space to help others.

2. Occupied

Available space: Moderate

Some level of stress and challenge is good for our well-being. It can be a motivating factor that brings about focus, enthusiasm, and alertness in a healthy way. It can also reduce boredom and mental confusion. Therefore, our aim need not be to keep our cup empty. When occupied, we are developing our problem-solving skills, enhancing our resilience and polishing strength.

3. Busy

Available space: Minimum

At this stage, we are accessing more of our internal and external resources to meet the demands and challenges of life. If this state continues in a systematic and wise way, there may be a breakthrough and the discovery of new strengths and talents. Otherwise, it may lead to a breakdown and lower functioning. Having the right tools, support and mindset can determine which way it will go for you – and that is why you got this course!

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

unhealthy-sepitajima4. Stressed

Available space: None for a while

Here, we are filled to our limit and no internal space is remaining for the time being.

If this situation continues for too long, the internal space gets increasingly unhealthy.

We might feel unable to resolve the situation at hand and feel stressed out. Thus, our confidence and self-esteem get affected as our ability to cope is diminishing.

This negative environment is fertile for the growth of negative feelings and thoughts, such as: “I’m not good enough. I’m worthless. I’m hopeless. I’m a disappointment. I’m such a loser.”  

Mild signs and symptoms of stress gradually emerge and get displayed in physical, emotional, mental, and even behavioral aspects of our life. Our body starts complaining through these warning signs. It communicates the need to make some changes in our lifestyle or workstyle.

5. Over-loaded

Available space: Negative

At this stage, we really start losing our healthy functioning and our ability to cope. Signs and symptoms of stress increase in frequency and intensity which in turn affect our well-being. Not only that but also the quality of our relationships lowers – both at home and outside. A crisis might be fast approaching if we do not make self-care a priority soon.

Some may turn to self-medication, binge-eating, drugs and alcohol to relieve the physical or emotional pain and symptoms. These unhealthy coping mechanisms and quick fixes do interfere with the body’s intelligent and natural way that is trying to warn us through unpleasant signs. Taking refuge into ‘pain-killers’ numbs us to the approaching crisis. It is a risky choice. On the contrary, some people work through the pain and examine the real contributing factors.

6. Over-whelmed

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

Warning! Warning! Here, we are very close to burnout, which is a state in response to a life lived in an imbalanced, overloaded, and overstimulated way for too long. At this stage, the symptoms become even more apparent and severe, having the potential to jeopardize our life.

By then, we have already consumed most of our internal resources. This overwhelming state can get infested with moderate to severe anxiety, depression, grief, paranoia, chronic stress, depersonalization, and other dysfunctional behaviors. So it is most necessary to free up some internal space urgently, to seek support, and to apply more effective self-care strategies.

At the same time, this stage is hardly appropriate for learning new skills or creative thinking. We may not have the energy nor the right mindset to think clearly. At this point, the best is to find helpful and healthy ways to unload safely while preventing further inputs into our cup.

Surprisingly, the majority of people continuously try to relieve their pain through ineffective coping strategies. Others may unfairly dump the load and ‘crap’ onto others through abusive or aggressive behaviors. These unhealthy choices create additional loads that pressure the person and those around them. The real work needs to happen in advance – preparation and early intervention – when we are outside these crisis moments.

The further we are down the spiral of unhealthy stress levels, the more effort and energy it requires to heal. Good news is that we can bounce back by time as we are resilient beings. It is possible, even though not easy. So do not get disheartened! Start by befriending yourself!

Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.  –  Eleanor Brownn

Final Words

I’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

Please join my mission and help raise awareness by sharing

Here is the 4-week “Conscious Stress Management Course”.

Happy Conscious Living!

  • Kara
    March 15, 2018

    This is GREAT! Are student groups and coalitions working on educating their peers/communities about the impacts of stress and trauma able to use these images?! GREAT stuff!!

    • Sepi Tajima
      March 20, 2018

      Thank you for the warm comment, Kara.
      You are welcome to use these images, providing that you mention this website as the source.

      • Kara
        March 21, 2018

        Wonderful! Will do. Thanks!!!

  • Rupal N. Solanki
    October 13, 2017

    Sepi, just read it again and have to stay i needed it. I always thought being busy is great and forgot how stressful it becomes until lately I have decided to make time of self care and focus on what I want to do. Your articles help greatly. 🙂

    • Sepi Tajima
      October 16, 2017

      Thank you for your heartfelt comment.
      It is lovely to read that you are prioritising self-care, Rupal. 🙂

  • Hans
    November 25, 2015

    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.

    • Sepi Tajima
      November 27, 2015

      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
    November 1, 2015

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

    • Sepi Tajima
      November 27, 2015

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

  • Bree
    October 31, 2015

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

    • Sepi Tajima
      November 27, 2015

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

  • David Gould
    September 17, 2015

    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.

    • Sepi Tajima
      September 28, 2015

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

  • David Johnson
    September 15, 2015

    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

    • Sepi Tajima
      September 28, 2015

      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
    September 8, 2015

    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

    • Sepi Tajima
      September 8, 2015

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

  • Skye Garside
    September 1, 2015

    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.

    • Sepi Tajima
      September 2, 2015

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

  • Dr. Susannah
    August 28, 2015

    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?

    • Sepi Tajima
      August 28, 2015

      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
    August 19, 2015

    Thank you.

  • Ian Springham
    August 16, 2015

    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.

    • Sepi Tajima
      August 16, 2015

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

  • Emma Sharrock
    August 13, 2015

    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!

    • Sepi Tajima
      August 14, 2015

      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
    August 13, 2015

    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.

    • Sepi Tajima
      August 14, 2015

      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
    July 29, 2015

    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.

    • Sepi Tajima
      July 31, 2015

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

  • Casey Truffo
    July 14, 2015

    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!!

    • sepi
      July 14, 2015

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

    • Sepi Tajima
      July 17, 2015

      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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