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What's in your bucket?

In my blog post from two weeks ago, I talked about how the way we think about stress and what we do about stress have a greater impact on our well-being than stress itself. Check out that blog post here, if you haven’t read it yet.

Today, I want to share a powerful analogy about stress and the importance of stress management.

Remember, stress management is not about trying to avoid stress. That's not possible because stress is inevitable. Rather, stress management is about interacting with stress in healthy ways. It's about consciously engaging in activities and ways of thinking that get us back to feeling good, when we start to feel uncomfortable from too much stress or overwhelm.

I did not come up with the analogy I am about to share. (I really wish I had, though.)

This model was first presented by Alison Braban and Douglas Turkington in 2002. I learned about it from Dr. Hanley-Dafoe, who tweaked it a bit. What you will read below is my interpretation of this analogy, along with my own applications.

It’s about buckets. I want to point out that you may be familiar with a different analogy about buckets – one that refers to "refilling" your figurative bucket with love, good vibes, joy, etc. whenever you are feeling depleted. While that is a lovely and helpful visual, this analogy has nothing to do with that one.

(Apparently, scientists have a thing with buckets… The scientific bucket overfloweth… with buckets.)

Okay, so here we go.

Imagine that we each have a bucket that we carry around with us. We don’t all have the same bucket. What our bucket looks like is influenced by our demographics, privileges, etc. So, my bucket might look different than yours. They may differ in size, colour, shape, or construction materials.

In the bottom of each of our buckets (the blue-grey in the image to the left) is where we keep things like our personality, our physical condition, our genetics, our mental condition, or any trauma we have experienced. This stuff is always sloshing around in there and we carry it around with us wherever we go. If there is a lot in the bottom of your bucket, there isn't a ton of space left for anything else in there.

Above the bottom-of-the-bucket stuff is where our everyday stressors go. (That’s the brighter blue in the image to the left.)

As the name suggests, everyday stressors occur… every day. They drip into our bucket - or sometimes they rush into the bucket - like the faucet in the image. Stressors may be the same from one day to the next or they may be different.

Regardless, they don’t stop coming. This is life.

Above the everyday stressors is empty space, a "buffer zone". (This is represented by the light grey near the top of the bucket in the image.) It’s important to have a buffer zone because it gives us somewhere to put the new – but inevitable – stressors that we encounter throughout the day.

As more stressors go into our bucket, our bucket starts to fill up. Without ways to relieve or manage stress, that empty space near the top gets smaller and smaller until the bucket overflows. When this happens, we feel overwhelmed… and, due to the buffer zone having been filled up, we are left with no capacity to deal with new stressors that continue to arrive.

Having a bucket that is overflowing is not ideal... because it leads to our not feeling good. This happens to us all. It's nothing to feel ashamed of; most of us haven't learned how to properly deal with the onslaught of stress in our lives. However, now that we know, we want to avoid this situation, not by trying to avoid unavoidable stress but by proactively engaging in activities to release some of what is taking up space in our bucket.

Specifically, we need healthy and effective tools and coping strategies to help us empty the bucket a bit so that we can maintain or reclaim some of our buffer zone, be in a better place to handle new challenges that come our way, and get back to feeling good. That's the faucet in the middle of the bucket. It helps us drain some of what is in there.

There are many things we can do here. It comes down to figuring out what makes you feel good. Is it working out? Drinking water? Listening to a specific song? Going for a walk? Seeing a therapist? Reading? Taking a few deep breaths? Meditating? Getting a good night’s sleep? Talking to a friend? Getting a hug? Eating? Taking your vitamins? Gardening? Trying a new recipe? Knitting? Dancing? Colouring?

It's important to note that the tactics we use to do this matter… a lot. The methods you use to dispel stress should not refill your bucket with more or different stress.

Some strategies we employ to release built-up stress may feel good in the moment but ultimately lead to more stress.

Think of online gambling for instance. You might get that dopamine hit that feels good for a bit… but, if you’re addicted, then you’re just adding more stress to your bucket, such as financial troubles or relationship issues.

The same could be said for drinking. If you enjoy a glass of wine after work from time to time, that’s okay. I do, too. But there’s a big difference between that and drinking several bottles every night. Yes, it would be incredibly effective at numbing you from your stressors in the short term but the longer-term physical, mental, financial, and relationship implications would ultimately just add more stress to your bucket and lead to sustained feelings of "unwellness".

And let’s not confuse managing our stressors with numbing ourselves to them!

Stress exists to teach us something, to help us learn about ourselves.

Generally, when we feel stressed, it’s because something we care about is at stake. To turn only to tactics that numb us to the source of stress would remove the opportunity to learn and grow or make the most of the situation.

So, what we all need is a repertoire of tactics that we can turn to when we need them. We need a toolkit full of healthy and effective tools and techniques that will allow us to empty our buckets a bit, to maintain that buffer zone, and to get back to feeling good. I listed several earlier but that is really just the tip of the iceberg. I'll be sharing more in the coming weeks and months, too!

I recommend keeping a list of all the things that make you feel good, perhaps in the notes app on your phone, in a notebook, or on your laptop somewhere. It’s important to write them down because, when you’re feeling down, the last thing that is going to pop into your mind is a list of all the things you could do to feel better. When we’re overwhelmed, it’s hard to think of anything else. So, make it easy on yourself and note them somewhere so that all you have to do is find that spot, scan the list, and pick something. This is a living document. You will add to it constantly... every time you encounter or think of something else that makes you happy or makes you feel well. One day, it will hopefully be a very long list! Remember, as I shared in my last blog, stress is not something to be feared. It's an inevitable part of being human. But, we owe it to ourselves to find ways to work with and through the stress to get back to feeling good. No one else will or can do that for us.

Feeling good is a choice we get to make every day, in every moment.

If you have children in your life, I encourage you to share this with them. Effective stress management is a vital life skill yet most of us have to figure out how to do it on our own. Children are growing up in a world that has a lot of misinformation and fearmongering about stress. Help them see that they do not have to be helpless victims of stress. They can take positive and proactive actions to help themselves feel better, when they need to.

Thank you for reading!

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