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Feeling stressed, or feeling overloaded by tasks, or indeed overwhelmed by more significant life experiences is a common human experience. We sometimes feel we’re on top of ‘life’ only to feel suddenly overwhelmed by an unpredictable life event, or we can be managing well only to be feel pushed back by something seemingly small, perhaps something we would have usually managed well.

The stress vulnerability model and the metaphor of the ‘Stress Bucket’ (based from, Brabban and Turkington, 2002) can help us to:

1. Understand how stress can build up

2. Recognise when we might be reaching a limit to managing stress

3. Provide useful ideas of releasing or managing stressors.

The Bucket (capacity)

We all have the capacity to manage stressors and we all have a limit to our capacity. The bucket represents our capacity, depending on a range of factors we all have varying sized buckets and therefore different capacities for dealing with stressors. Those with limited capacity have smaller buckets and it doesn’t take a lot for the bucket to overflow, whereas those with high levels of capacity can have larger buckets, with more room to carry larger amounts of water/stress in the bucket.

Importantly no matter the size of your bucket we all have a limit to how much stress/water we can contain.

The water (stress)

The water in the bucket represents levels of stress or stressors. Stress can include things we contend with day to day, the commute to work, organising the school run, meeting deadlines, as well as more significant life events, bereavements, relationship breakdowns, financial challenges, harm from others, as well as positive events, a new home, marriage, having a baby and numerous other events.

As the water fills up and up and the capacity of the bucket is being reached, even the smallest stressors can push us beyond the capacity to manage. When the water overflows this is akin to the feeling that we can’t cope, feeling overwhelmed, finding usually simple tasks or decisions hard to navigate, these feeling in turn can become a stressors and add to filling up the bucket.

Holes in the bucket (coping mechanisms)

There are certain things that can influence how quickly the bucket fills up or how we can prevent overflow. This can be considered as holes in the bucket or blocks to these holes, holes in the bucket are useful coping mechanisms they help manage stressors, blocks to the holes are unhelpful coping mechanism. If the holes are not blocked then even if the water comes in fast it cannot overflow. It is therefore useful to identify unhelpful coping mechanisms, these can include, coping via alcohol, withdrawing and avoiding others, working harder or taking on too much, problems setting boundaries with others. These modes of coping can be well intentioned and even create some relief in the short term but in long term can lead to blocking those holes and resulting in quicker overflow.

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