Managing Stress Proactively: How Full Is Your Bucket?

By Rebecca Stearns, LPC

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, the smallest inconvenience can bring you to tears? One small thing goes wrong, and we have such a huge reaction. I once misplaced my computer charger and spent at least a full hour crying about it. Sometimes we might judge ourselves for being “too sensitive” and overreacting or shame ourselves for crying over something so simple. However, it’s more likely that this one incident wasn’t the entire problem, just the last straw. There are so many other things going on in life, and these problems continuously build up, causing us to feel overwhelmed. Stress adds up over time and is cumulative.

Imagine you have a bucket. You carry this bucket around with you everywhere you go, every single day. If you prefer a visual, you can draw this bucket on a piece of paper. For every stressor that impacts your life, color in a chunk of the bucket: the bigger the stressor, the bigger the section you color.  Stressful events or issues are water and debris dumped into your bucket; each and every stressor goes into your bucket. Car trouble? Add a scoop to the bucket. Relationship problems? Another scoop. All of our stressors go into this bucket, all various sizes, weights, colors, and textures. Sometimes it feels like there’s a never ending supply going straight into our bucket. The problem is, our bucket can only take so much.  If the bucket is full, it’s heavy! That’s a lot of weight to carry around every day. We can handle a few stressors at a time, but the more our bucket fills up, the closer we get to overflowing. At this point, what might usually be a minor inconvenience can cause the bucket to overflow.

When our bucket starts to get too close to the top, we might feel more stressed, worn down, overwhelmed, impatient, or irritable. When our bucket actually overflows, our feelings overflow too. This can lead to outbursts: We might snap at someone, cry, or shut down. This can be confusing, because it seems like such a small problem–but again, we can only handle so much.

The good news is that you can get rid of some of that weight in your bucket! Imagine a spigot you can attach to the side of your bucket to drain some of the stress out, or a way to scoop stressors out of the bucket.  But how can we drain the actual stress? Some problems can be solved, clearing that section from your bucket. For example, if a work deadline or upcoming exam is filling up your bucket, once the project is done, the stress may decrease. Other problems may be more consistent, like relationship problems, work stress, or illness. Although we might not be able to clear these stressors the same way as some others, we can still reduce the stress. First, make sure your physical needs are being met. Basic health needs such as sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition often go out the window when we’re stressed, negatively impacting not only our physical health but our mental health as well. Practicing other forms of self-care also helps empty your bucket. Things like talking to a friend, having quiet time, practicing hobbies, and spending time outside can help keep your bucket at a more manageable level.

It’s important to keep track of our bucket on a regular basis, rather than waiting until it starts to overflow. Pay attention to the size of your bucket, how full it is, and what’s in it. How full of a bucket can you manage before it gets uncomfortable? Make sure to check in with yourself frequently: How full is my bucket today? Can I remove anything from my bucket right now? You don’t need to wait for your bucket to overflow before you start to practice some of these stress reduction techniques. The more proactive you are about the levels in your bucket, the less likely you are to overflow. Think about the things you generally do to decrease your stress, and make sure you’re spending enough time on these things regularly. If you’re having a particularly stressful day or week, you may need to schedule some extra self-care.

Remember: you are only human, and there is only so much you can hold onto at once. Practice compassion toward yourself. Check in with yourself regularly. And make sure to take care of yourself, way before that bucket gets too full.

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