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

4. 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

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