In especially uncertain moments such as these, compartmentalization is recommended.

In especially uncertain moments such as these, compartmentalization is recommended. Credit: Getty Images/Andreus

Lynn Bufka isn’t sure how she’s going to get through the next nine months.

The licensed psychologist, stress expert and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association usually watches the news on TV each morning. But with a contentious presidential election coming up, lately she’s been reluctant to pick up the remote.

“I don’t want to hear anything about the election — and it’s only January,” she said in an interview. “Even as a psychologist I’m trying to think through how best to manage it.”

Bufka doesn’t want to stick her head under a rock, but she also can’t allow herself to become engulfed in worry about what will happen if her candidate loses. She has a job to do, relationships to maintain and other life responsibilities that demand her attention.

In especially uncertain moments such as these, when her own patients are consumed with anxiety, Bufka recommends compartmentalization — separating different parts of one’s mental and emotional experience.

As questions about our political, environmental and technological future loom, experts say that compartmentalizing can be a useful tool to help us regulate our emotions without falling apart. Yes, it’s a defense mechanism that sometimes gets a bad rap, said Gloria Mark, a retired professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for you, she said. “It’s a function that helps us navigate through our days without being burdened by all the stress.”

While it’s possible to over-compartmentalize and, in turn, numb your feelings, taking occasional breaks from intense emotions is an essential component of mental health. We all instinctively do it: We hold back tears to answer an important work call, mute our anger to communicate diplomatically with our partner or push down our anxiety to read a bedtime story to our toddler. In the past decade or so, we as a society may even have developed an increased awareness of this self-preservation technique; Google searches for compartmentalization have been steadily increasing since 2004.

At its most useful, compartmentalization is the ability to acknowledge challenges in your personal circumstances or current events, and make a conscious decision to not allow those things to take over your thoughts and emotions, said Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and professor at MIT Sloan School of Management. But that doesn’t mean shutting out the world.

“The opposite would be to say, ‘I’m not going to read the news,’ ‘I refuse to talk about anything difficult,’ and, ‘Any time I think of something sad and scary I’m just going to push it down,’ ” she said. “That’s unhealthy.”

There are times when we simply can’t deal with an emotion in the moment. Maybe we have a deadline, or a child to care for, or we’re in the supermarket and it’s not appropriate to cry, scream or yell. In that case, Swart said, we can make an agreement with ourselves that we will make space to sit with it, journal about it or talk about it with a friend or therapist later.

“To me, compartmentalizing is when an individual exercises a healthy boundary, with intention, in service of a value they hold,” said Jaz Robbins, a trauma therapist who teaches psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. “That value could be family, health, community, relaxation or even comfort. Comfort is absolutely a value.”

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