Using the idea of the stress container to look after our mental health

12 May 2021

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re thinking about how to look after ourselves and check in with our mental health. The stress container is a useful tool to understand stress and how we make sure we’re staying well and healthy, especially during the exam period.

Dandelion blowing in the wind

What is the stress container?

The stress container is a way to think about our mental health. Some people’s containers are larger, and some are smaller, since our upbringings and life experiences can result in differing container sizes. It’s used as a tool in Mental Health First Aid, and a great way to think about, and conceptualise, stress.

Understand more about the stress container on the Mental Health First Aid England website. 

The process

There are lots of sources of stress in our lives, and we can’t control these.

Stress flows into the stress container – maybe right now, that’s worrying about exams, if you’ve done enough revision, sorting out some summer plans, trying to arrange your friends to meet up, worrying about what to do after you graduate – it’s all valid and it’s all understandable.

There is a tap at the bottom of the container, where we use coping strategies, to help let the stress out. This is things like seeing friends and family, being active, looking after your diet, getting good sleep. But this tap can get blocked by unhelpful coping strategies too – studying for long hours to try and ‘catch up’ on the stress, drinking alcohol, or sleeping less. You can learn new coping mechanisms at any time, and these are dynamic and not fixed. Self-care is an important element of this, and you can read some tips here

When our stress levels increase, our stress container gets filled up to the point where the container overflows. In everyday life, this manifests differently in each person, but it might look like irritability or tearfulness, indecisiveness and trouble concentrating, and/or fatigue and physical illness.

Building up your coping strategies

As we mentioned, coping strategies are not fixed: you can always learn new ones! They might look like making time to catch up with friends or family, doing exercise, or more obviously mental health focused activities such as mindfulness, talking therapies, or joining one of our wellbeing events. Have a think about what you enjoy doing, and if it makes you feel good – then try to do more of it in your life.

Having these activities will help you to cope with life stresses, and increase your ability to let stress out of the tap at the bottom of the container.

Using the idea of the stress container to support your mental health

Hopefully by now you’ve got a good idea of what the stress container idea is all about. Now, can you use it to better understand how stress looks like for you, and how you can manage it? This Mental Health Awareness Week, try to use it as a tool to understand yourself more, and work out if there are ways you can work to mitigate stresses in your life, so you can have a happy and healthy time at university.