Don't let your stress overflow
Updated: Jan 29, 2019
Continuing our series on resilience, I thought I’d share a little about the 'stress bucket' idea. None of us can avoid stress altogether, but there are things we can do to buffer its effects. Using the analogy of a bucket can be a helpful reminder. I hope you find this helpful and would dearly love to hear your feedback.
Stress and adversity
One model for thinking about resilience to adversity, is the stress bucket analogy, shown in the graphic below. Those who have attended mental health first aid training or our ‘ART of Resilience’ course will be familiar with this. Imagine we all have a bucket that our various stressors pour into. Some people have a big bucket which can hold a lot- they’re resilient. Some people have a small one, and are more prone to it ‘overflowing’.
The size of our bucket is a product of lots of things. This includes personality, upbringing and early socialisation, genetics, thinking patterns, life events and learning. Some of this is under our control, and some it isn’t. Interestingly, the research shows that the most challenging life events are often the ones that strengthen resilience the most.
Resilience to stress
At different points in our life we will have different degrees of stress flowing in. Even people with big stress buckets can become overwhelmed if a lot of stress lands all at once, or if they are not taking steps to address existing stress in the bucket. This is the purpose of the tap on the side of the bucket. The tap represents our coping mechanisms. These things might include sharing with supportive friends, family and colleagues, exercise, sleep, relaxation techniques, hobbies and so on. However sometimes some of the things we do in the name of coping, can actually become part of the problem. This includes things like drinking too much, overspending, drugs or anything done to excess to ‘numb’ out the pain of daily life.
When stress overflows
When our stress bucket becomes full to the brim it only takes a small thing to cause it to overflow. You may have experienced or witnessed this yourself. In fact we have a name for it in our culture- ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ To an onlooker, it can seem puzzling how a relatively small stressor can cause someone to ‘snap’ but the stress bucket analogy is helpful in understanding why. It might seem like an over-reaction, but it is simply that the person is ‘full’. Perhaps you might be aware that some of the people around you at the moment are ‘full’. When we realise this, it can become easier to make allowances for people and to offer support.
Increasing your coping ability
During any challenging period of your life, get used to asking yourself what’s in your bucket. How full do you feel? In an earlier blog I talked about the difference between our circle of concern (things we’re concerned about but have no direct influence over) and our circle of influence (things we can impact on). One of the tactics employed by highly resilient people is to focus only on those things that can be changed or influenced. We only have so much time and energy and if we use this focusing on things which we can't change, we risk having nothing left to focus on those things which are under our control or influence. Dealing with the things within your control, leaves more capacity to deal with the things that can’t be changed right now.
Using your tap
One aspect of your experience which is under your control is the steps you can take to empty the bucket. In other words having an effective tap. Maybe you could take a few moments to focus on what you’re doing to empty the bucket. What one thing could you commit to today, that would help you deal with the stress/pressure you’re facing right now? It might be as simple as asking for help, if the things that can’t be changed feel really overwhelming or challenging right now. Sources of support might be helpful colleagues, your manager, friends, a mental health first aider or an Employee Assistance Programme if your organisation has one.
Or the one thing you could do might be getting some exercise or spending some time in nature. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that we make time for these renewal activities, in order to avoid becoming ‘full’.
In this clip below, mental health campaigner Neil Laybourn explains how to keep that tap open to stop your stress overflowing.
I do hope this is helpful. If you think someone you know might benefit from reading this, I’d love it if you’d share it with them. Helping others can be a stress busting experience in itself. Together we can make the world a gentler place. If you’d like to stay in touch, sign-up here to receive blogs and our quarterly newsletter.