By Dr Karen Hallam

There is an analogy I have used since becoming a psychologist with nearly everyone I have seen who struggles with stress, anxiety and depression. The analogy is one of a cup.

This cup in turn represents how ‘full’ we feel and relates to stress. We all have a cup that varies in size and shape.

Some of us have the cup largely pre-filled by the genetics we inherit from our families, and others may naturally have a huge cup that takes a long time to fill.


An example in action

Emily comes from a family of worriers. Her mum has experienced anxiety since Emily was young.

Emily may have a partly filled cup with some of the various genes that predispose people to anxiety, but also fill it with how she learned to cope with stress growing up.

Emily has always loved working with people and found her talents lay in retail. Over time she has progressed to an assistant store manager. While this sounds impressive, Emily finds that she is often dealing with staff issues, angry customers and constant budgets to manage. These cause chronic stress for Emily that again fill up her cup.

In her personal life Emily and her partner have been trying to have children and it has been a very difficult and stressful process. This is going to add a lot more to her cup… are you seeing a trend here?

Now, this year has been challenging in retail and in general due to COVID-19. Even though Emily works at a store in Adelaide which is open for business as usual, COVID has had huge impacts and Emily is working longer hours with more stress at work than ever before.


The build-up effect

When Emily comes to see a psychologist like myself, her cup is typically either totally full, if not overflowing. When I ask what’s been going on to bring her to this point, she will typically point out the last things that have gone into the cup (a fight with her partner, a terrible week at work).

It’s tempting to focus on the thing that has just gone wrong and trying to fix these, but often new stresses just take their place and the cup remains almost full a lot of the time. Sometimes though, we need to work on the way Emily sees her world through professional support and guidance.


The importance of the ‘coping tap’

Whatever the case, Emily needs relief from the distress of an overflowing cup. This is where the coping tap comes in. The coping tap is an outlet for this glass somewhere on the side. Coping skills allow us to drain off some of the stress by taking care of ourselves.

Some of the easier skills to begin with include:

  • Talking with people who you feel understand you about your stress
  • Doing things that give you happiness or calmness (and not just numb you out like TV can do)
  • Exercising and getting your body moving
  • Nourishing yourself with positive food, people, nature or hobbies
  • Being gentle with yourself, acknowledging that sometimes it’s just hard
  • Introducing relaxation to your life
  • Acknowledging you are doing ‘the best you can in the place you are in’ right now.

The main thing for Emily to remember in this situation is that she can’t control everything in life and that’s OK. While stresses pile up, they can be gradually reduced and new ways of managing them learned.

Each coping skill you can introduce and maintain helps to better manage stress and empty out that cup. It also makes us more resilient in the future.

If you do notice your cup is full or overflowing, it may be worth getting some professional support to help you with this as well.

My last advice… every evening ask yourself ‘how full is my cup?’ to put yourself back in charge of taking care of your stress. Take care of yourselves.

About Dr Karen Hallam

Dr Karen Hallam is a Clinical Psychologist Research Associate and Mental Health Advisor at Moving Mindz. Karen is extremely well-regarded in her field, having won an international award for her work.

She has been a researcher and practitioner in clinical psychology for over a decade and has a Ph.D. on mood disorders from the Department of Psychiatry at The University of Melbourne. Karen has worked on more than 50 peer-reviewed research publications, including the first-ever paper on the mental health benefits from a 10,000-step program (developed in conjunction with our CEO). To reach out to Dr. Karen, please email: