Compartmentalization can be used as a mental structuring tool that may help you keep stressful thoughts and feelings in one situation from invading other parts of your life.

It’s human nature for thoughts and emotions that pop up in one moment to carry on long past the original event. If something negative happens on your way to work in the morning, for example, it may swirl around in your thoughts for hours, creating a psychological rain cloud over the entire day.

Negative thoughts and feelings that persist 24/7 are often a big reason why stress becomes chronic. Even when you’re out of a stressful situation, your thoughts can keep you locked in.

Being able to separate your thoughts and store them in their own “compartments” of your psyche might help reduce the impact they have on unrelated aspects of life. And when done for the right reasons, this self-imposed mental structuring could help you manage stress.

When you divide out certain thoughts and isolate them from others, it’s called compartmentalization. Like organizing similar items in different compartments of a desk, compartmentalization separates unrelated thoughts from one another.

Sometimes considered a form of dissociation, compartmentalization is frequently viewed as a psychological defense mechanism. Especially among people who have experienced trauma or other emotionally overwhelming circumstances.

Rather than expose you to painful memories or thoughts, the brain separates them away from the rest of the consciousness — compartmentalizing them.

Under current concepts, however, compartmentalization is now seen as both an unconscious defense mechanism and a psychological tool you can deliberately engage in.

“The benefits of compartmentalization are significant, particularly in managing stress and maintaining focus,” explains Joshua Collins, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical coordinator at SOBA, New Brunswick, New Jersey. “By isolating aspects of life that may cause anxiety or emotional distress, individuals can prevent these feelings from taking over their entire psychological landscape, allowing them to remain productive and composed in various areas of life.”

Examples of compartmentalization

Compartmentalization can occur on both a broad and intricate level. Examples of compartmentalization in everyday life for stress management include:

  • Deliberately separating your work life from your personal life by not focusing on work-related stressors once you clock out for the day. You also avoid focusing on personal life challenges while on the job.
  • Breaking down complex challenges into smaller tasks in order to focus on one area without being overwhelmed by the big picture.
  • Practicing in-the-moment awareness, or mindfulness, so you can keep your attention on immediate tasks and responsibilities.
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Even though you may naturally compartmentalize in your life, this psychological state can be cultivated with practice.

Set clear boundaries

Ryan Sheridan, an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner from Washington, DC, recommends setting specific limits on different areas of your life, such as:

  • work
  • self-care
  • personal relationships

Creating and maintaining boundaries can help train you to mentally shift from one area of focus to another.

“An example I do personally: I set clear limits on when it is acceptable to check work emails,” he says. “Most evenings, I have an explicit time after which emails are off limits to ensure I am engaging enough outside of work.”

Develop routines and rituals

With enough repetition, routines, rituals, and habits can become second nature. This can help you mentally disengage when a task is done.

“Establishing routines can help transition between different compartments of your life.” Collins indicates. “For instance, a simple ritual like changing your outfit after work or a short drive before entering the house can serve as a psychological cue that work has ended and home life is beginning.”

Practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of awareness that holds your attention in the “now” and not on past or future thought rumination.

Cultivating mindfulness can help you develop compartmentalization by teaching you how to disengage with thoughts, emotions, and circumstances around you once they’ve ended.

While there are many ways to practice being mindful, one of the easiest places to start is when you eat. While eating, focus on the food. How does it taste? What is the texture? The smell? Once the food is gone, your focus naturally shifts to something else.


Writing down troublesome thoughts or concerns can be a way to mentally place them in a ‘box,” Collins says. “Once written, it’s easier to set these thoughts aside, knowing they are recorded and can be revisited when appropriate, thus clearing mental space for other activities.”

Compartmentalization is not inherently “good” or “bad.” Like many psychological processes and practices, it all depends on why and how you’re using it.

Sheridan says compartmentalization can be a healthy practice when used appropriately because it can help isolate issues that could be overwhelming if considered as a whole.

When used in a beneficial way, compartmentalization can help you:

  • set aside stressful thoughts and emotions
  • regulate your emotions
  • efficiently problem-solve
  • enhance attention and focus
  • maintain boundaries

“…[compartmentalization] becomes unhealthy,” Sheridan explains, “when it leads to denial or persistent avoidance of significant emotional or existential issues. If compartmentalization is used to ignore or avoid emotions or problems, it can lead to increased psychological distress or a break-down in emotional processing.”

He adds that it’s not just about dividing life into manageable parts. It’s also about understanding and accepting that not every aspect of life can be controlled or resolved immediately.

It’s this acceptance that allows you to focus on what can be managed in the present, leading to more effective handling of stress, challenges, and adversity.

Compartmentalization is a psychological process in which interconnected thoughts and feelings are mentally contained so they don’t overwhelm unrelated parts of your day.

While often seen as a subconscious defense mechanism, compartmentalization can be a deliberate, positive mental exercise for stress management.

If you’re engaging in compartmentalization as a way to avoid extremely distressing thoughts and emotions, such as those from trauma, speaking with a mental health professional can help. Trauma-focused therapies allow you to explore and process traumatic experiences in a safe and controlled environment.