Mental Health Monday: The Stress Bucket

This is a page from the bullet journal I used for the first half of 2017. When I made this page, I’d not long come out of hospital and had just started writing up the notes I’d made during the workshops I’d attended there. (See The Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life for more information.)

I can’t remember the title of this particular workshop, but I’ve not forgotten the things I learned in it. The stress bucket, in particular, has stuck with me; in fact, just the other week, I sat down with my twelve year old and drew her a stress bucket to help her manage her school-related stress levels. It seemed to help.

The theory is simple. The water flowing into the bucket from tap at the top represents the demands placed on you and the things that cause you stress. The tap at the bottom of the bucket represents your coping techniques, the things you might do to mitigate the effects of demands and stressors, as well as the things you do to relax and refresh yourself. The bucket itself represents your inner strength and resilience, your inherent ability to thrive and survive whatever life throws at you – your beliefs, your values, your gifts and talents, your goals, your hopes and dreams, your identity.

Imagine that the tap at the top is fully open and water is pouring into the bucket. What is going to stop the bucket from overflowing, or worse, from breaking? Well if it’s well-made of strong stuff, the bucket will be able to hold a lot of water without breaking, and if the tap at the bottom is fully open, it won’t overflow either. It’s the same with us. If we are strong in ourselves and if we have good coping abilities, we should be able to deal with the stresses that come our way. But we’re not always strong in ourselves. All sorts of things can weaken us: physical illness, mental illness, abuse, neglect, addictions. And our coping abilities aren’t always up to snuff. Through no fault of our own, we might not have time to relax; we might not have the money for avocados and a gym membership; we might not even know what is good for us and what isn’t.

Before I became ill, toward the end of 2016, I’d been dealing with some major stressors for a long time, but I’d not been taking care of myself properly, and I was busy doing things I didn’t really feel called to do, so when yet another stressor came along it tipped the balance, and I ended up with anxiety, depression and a five-week stay in hospital. But since then, over the course of my recovery, I’ve adopted a number of coping techniques and resilience-building habits that are helping me manage stress. These techniques and habits include planning using the bullet journal system, habit and mood tracking, getting out of bed between 7am and 7.30am everyday, being in bed by 11pm every night, drinking at least five drinks a day, meditating everyday using the Headspace app, praying everyday using the Pray as You Go app, creating something arty and crafty everyday, writing in and decorating my artful journal, doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation before bed, using lavender oil as a soothing scent, leaving the house once a day if possible, walking in the fresh air, cutting down on junk food, regularly reviewing my life and setting small goals. I’ve also let go of the idea that I have to say ‘yes’ to everything, and I am learning to pace myself and rest when I need to, as well as only investing my time and energy into the things I really believe in. This last one, in particular, has given me a renewed sense of purpose and direction, which in turn is giving me something to focus on during times when I do feel low or anxious.

None of this has happened overnight – it’s taken a year to get here, and what I’ve learned over the last twelve months is that I need to take things slow, to change each area of my life one at a time, gently, mindfully, non-judgmentally and with self-compassion. Discovering the idea of a Stress Bucket and The Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life was the start of this journey, a journey I’ll be on until the day I die! In the past, I’ve tried to get into good habits, but have often got bored with them and let them fall by the wayside. I can’t afford to do that this time. I’ve seen the positive changes that these habits have had on my life, and I know that I need to keep doing them and not stop even when things are going well. If these habits stay in place, they’ll be there when I need them most. I won’t have to try to remember what to do – it’ll come as naturally as breathing.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for persevering with this rather long post. I hope I haven’t rambled too much and that this has been helpful. Feel free to say ‘hi’ in the comments. Have you come across the stress bucket idea before? What helps you cope with the demands and stresses of life?

See you soon! xxx

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3 Responses to Mental Health Monday: The Stress Bucket

  1. Car says:

    Thanks for sharing this Natalie! I am currently creating a journal of techniques to help with my anxiety and I think this one is a prfect analogy. So often we are told that things are everyday stressors but all those small things add to big things if we dont let them flow.

  2. ashly a velting says:

    I love this post, thank you for posting it! I’ve never heard it explained this way, this is very functional for me and I like it. My therapist once told me that when I get stressed about something to write down a “plan”. Even if the solution is to “just accept it” refer to the plan. This is much better for me! Thank you for this useful tool.

    • Natalie says:

      Thanks for your comment! It’s great to hear that these posts are useful. I love the stress bucket idea because it is so visual and easy to remember. I hope it works for you! x

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