coaching topics, DIY coaching, Ellie's World, Mental wellness, workload management

What’s in your stress bucket?

I love a good model or framework – they help me make sense of things and to plan next steps. This week I’ve been doing my Mental Health First Aider training and have come across the “stress container” model. I thought it would be useful to share here as often people turn to coaching at times of stress or overwhelm.

It also probably feels particularly relevant to me as I’m in workload overload mode at the moment and that is really affecting the size of my bucket.

Bucket? What is she going on about? OK, imagine that you have a “stress container” – I find it helpful to visualise this as a bucket, or maybe a water butt as those have taps at the bottom. Anyway, each of us has a stress bucket, and it’s positioned under a tap, from which flows various stressors to fill our bucket. These will be different for everyone, mine include work, family, health, financial stability and cost of living, as well as trickles from climate change and the apparent break down of democracy (those last two I will not consider here anymore as they are less clearly in my circle of control or even influence).

At the bottom of the bucket is a tap. This tap allows water, or stress to flow out. We can increase the flow out by using helpful coping strategies (for me this includes listening to music, walking/hiking, limiting my news consumption, and list making). We can also decrease the flow out by using unhelpful coping strategies (again, examples will differ from person to person but might include alcohol, drugs, over-work, avoidance, social media procrastination).

A bucket positioned under a stream of water with the word “stressors” above it. The bucket has a tap from which water can flow. An arrow indicating turning on the tap is labelled “helpful coping strategies”.

If the flow in exceeds the flow out then the level of stress in our bucket rises. When it gets to overflowing, this is sometimes described as “emotional snapping”. You probably know how you behave when you get to this point. Mine involves irritability and tendency to tears. But this model shows us that we have different ways of reducing the level in our stress bucket. We can decrease the flow in at the top (e.g. by focussing on stressors within our circle of control), and/or we can increase the rate of flow out through the tap by increasingly using our helpful coping strategies.

Incidentally, everyone’s bucket will be a different size. Some people have an increased capacity for stress and are therefore more resilient to an increase in stressors. Others have smaller buckets and reach that emotional snapping point earlier. We can also do things to increase the size of our bucket by building resilience.

A way to use this model is to identify:

  • The stressors filling your bucket
  • Your emotional snapping signatures (and preferably how you feel in the approach to it, so you know when the bucket is about to overflow)
  • Your helpful coping strategies
  • Your unhelpful coping strategies

Once you know these, you will be in a position to start turning the tap on, and getting back in control of the levels in your bucket.

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