The Stress Bucket

The Stress Bucket[1]

I love teaching my clients a metaphor about life, stress, and dealing with both.  Imagine that every human being has a bucket within, Stress Bucket.  Life, in its infinite wisdom, has decided its job is to fill this bucket with stress, and that stress is always attempting to fill the bucket.  I call this tendency to fill the bucket “The Gump Factor” after Forest because, as he so eloquently put it “Shit Happens.”  

Now on our bucket is painted a line about 80 % of the way up from the bottom.  This line, “the Whelm Line” warns when the bucket is getting too full.  Ask anyone, and they will tell you that they know what happens with too much stress.  They get “overwhelmed,” and life becomes a struggle.  

(or, the secret to managing all the crap that happens on a daily basis)

How Life Works – The Stress Bucket

My experience is that everyone has one or more coping skills that they habitually use when they get overwhelmed.  Alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling, eating, sex, shopping, isolating, sleeping, and the ultimate escape, suicide ideation are typical coping skills when overwhelmed.  None of these things are inherently bad or destructive, but as coping skills they all have the same two problems.  First, when overused they add to the stress levels, and second, they don’t empty the bucket.  All they do is distract us from our stress.

In our residential mental health program we metaphorically put a lid on the bucket by reducing incoming stressors.  We created an environment with fewer telephone calls, no internet, minimal television, no mail (no bills coming in), no chores such as cooking or cleaning, etc.  These changes reduce the incoming stress but do nothing to empty the accumulated stress.  The next step is to empty the bucket of stress.

What we need on our stress bucket is a drain valve.  Now imagine, (or check out my video[2])  that I install a drain spout at the 20% level of the bucket.  This is a spout with no shut-off knob.  My number 2 spout is always open and as soon as the stress gets to that level it starts to drain out.  Quickly the overflowing bucket drains much of the stress.

Now, what does this spout represent in our lives?  I strongly contend that several things are universally helpful to keep stress low and I suggest that these be done every single day of one’s life.

These include:

  • exercise or movement
  • play/ recreation
  • good sleep, from 7 to 9 hours 
  • good nutrition
  • mindfulness or prayer
  • people/ socializing
  • purpose
  • routine
  • journaling

Let’s explore these recommendations and how they impact stress in your life.

Exercise:   Everywhere you turn people are extolling the value of exercise, and often, selling some way to get you to do it.  It turns out that exercise is overrated.  (Don’t get me started on exercise for weight loss).  To reduce psychological stress we need to move our bodies.  But that doesn’t mean running 5 miles or doing 100 push-ups.  Next time you go to the grocery store or a mall, park at the far end of the parking lot and walk to and from the store.  You are exercising.  When you go into a building with several floors, commit to taking the first 4 floors by the stairs, both up and down.  Again, you’re exercising.  Pretty simple.  

Play:  I believe don’t play enough.  We take life so seriously that stress accumulates and we end up with a variety of stress-related illnesses.  

Now combine the two; exercise and play:  I may not want to hike 4 or 5 hours, but invite me to play golf and I’m likely to show up.  I get the same workout but it’s not exercise; it’s playing.  Invite me to do jumping jacks for 2 hours and I will refer you to a therapist, but invite me to play volleyball and I’m there.  Again, exercise in the form of play.  Let’s make physical movement fun as well as healthy.

Sleep:  We all need sleep but the amount of sleep we need does vary.  The National Institute of Sleep[3] (yes, there is one.  Imagine getting paid to study sleep.)  states that there is a minimum amount as well as a maximum amount of sleep that is optimum for physical and mental health.  For the average adult, the minimum is 7 hours of sleep and the maximum, 9 hours.  If we get less than our minimum amount to stop functioning at our best.  Lack of sleep often interferes with thinking, impacting our mood and making interactions with others rough.  In a very different way, too much sleep is stressful.  With too much sleep we tend towards inertia.  It becomes hard to be motivated, to get moving when we are logy and groggy from too much sleep. 

Adults – 7 – 9 hours     Teens – 10 – 12 hours
Seniors – 6 – 8 hours   Babies – 16-18
P.S.  Many people feel they can “catch up” on missed sleep during the weekend but, depending on how sleep-deprived they are, sleeping longer on the weekends may not be adequate.

Nutrition:  Learning to drive I learned that cheap gas made my car run poorly.  Food is the fuel for your body, and the better the quality of fuel, the better your body runs. Food impacts our energy, our sleep, our thinking, and our moods.  The current thinking about food is that we are consuming too much grain, sugar, fats, and salt in our lives.  See the book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss 

 Sugar, in particular, is damaging to our minds and bodies.  See the 60 Minute special on Sugar[4] that suggests that the human body does not need or want additional sugars from our foods.  Natural sugars from fruits and vegetables provide sufficient nutrients.  The research suggests that any sweeteners other than Stevia is causing stress on the body.  That means even fruit juices and sweeteners.  
Grains, as well, are over consumed.  More and more bodies are reacting to gluten, which is in most grains.  It’s not that grains are bad for us, but rather that we have been over-relying on grains in our diets.  Breads, flours, pastas, all quickly convert to sugars in the body.  The more processed the grains the quicker they convert, overwhelming the digestion and overpowering the blood sugar levels.  A wonderful tool for managing our health is the Glycemic Index (GI)[5].  The GI tells us which foods covert the slowest to sugars, which is a great thing for the body.  Those foods are converted to energy, and not to fat, which is what the body does with sugar and simple carbohydrates.  Want to lose weight? When you want sugar, what the body is saying is that you need energy.  Consider foods with a lower glycemic index.  The body needs energy in manageable doses.  When your energy resources are low you need proteins and complex carbohydrates, not sugars.  

Mindfulness – have you started meditating yet?  The research is clear, meditation improves health and well-being, reduces stress, improves I.Q. and decreases the biological (as opposed to chronological) age of the body.  Dr. Herbert Benson (The Relaxation Response) in conjunction with R. Keith Wallace began the research in the 1970s on one of the most popular of meditation techniques, Transcendental Meditation.  Today hundreds of research studies continue to validate the value of Mindfulness for humanity. One of the leaders in the increasing awareness of this is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has generated more interest in Mindfulness than almost any other single individual.  
Mental health and spiritual health are best achieved by a focus in the present.  Have you noticed that you can do nothing about the past?  Yep, it’s over and done with.  Rumination is dwelling on the past and is a recipe for ulcers.  The past cannot be changed.  
So, too, the future is unchangeable, but for a different reason.  Thinking about the future, ruminating on what “might” or “could” happen is a waste of time and energy. The future is as out of our control as the past is.  We can plan, set goals for a future as long as we don’t get too attached to the outcomes.  It turns out that the future is unpredictable.  Yes, we can predict that the sun will rise; but not if we will be able to see it. Cloudy, rainy, sunny, are all just guesses or wishes about the future.  We’ve all been annoyed with the weather service for predicting weather and it not being correct.  And they have millions of dollars in technology to make their guesses.   And that is the right word; educated guesses.  
The point of all this?  When we find our attention spent too much on the past, causing depression, or too much on the future, generating anxiety, Mindfulness is the technique to bring us back to the present.  

People:  There was a young man who, frustrated with society, chose to move off into the wild, to live off the land, in isolation.  That was in 1971.  In 1978 he began to be concerned that technology was destroying nature and began a bombing campaign that lasted until his arrest in 1996.   Known as the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski was a brilliant young man who, isolated from regular contact with others, lost contact with reality.  I propose that the lack of regular connection with others contributed to his break with reality.  
My premise is this; feedback is essential to life.  Virtually everything man build has a feedback loop.  Whether it is a heating system, an automatic pilot on an airplane or your car; we constantly use feedback.  In nature, there are feedback loops as well.  Growing up in Alaska we once had a problem with wolves.  They were coming closer to town and killing livestock and domestic pets.  The Fish and Game Department came up with a solution; set a bounty on wolves.  So they advertised a $75 bounty for every wolf pelt brought to them.  It was a great success; fewer wolves.  But the following summer we were swarmed with rabbits.  Rabbits everywhere, in gardens, yards, on the highways, everywhere.  The problem?  They had eliminated natures feedback loop by killing off the rabbit’s natural predators.  
Now, mankind doesn’t have a predator.  It turns out that our feedback loop is other people.  That friend, encouraging you to go for a walk, is giving you feedback.  That family member, suggesting you relax and not take things so seriously, is giving you feedback.  Movie reviews, recommended recipes, and the like are ways we get feedback from others.  We need people to check in with daily.  In psychology, we call this a Reality Check. 

Purpose: In the 1930s a young man went to the richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie and asked: “Teach me to be rich.”  Carnegie first laughed at the young man, the stopped and said, “No, I won’t, but I will hire you.  Go out and interview all the wealthy people you can find and ask them how they became wealthy.”
So this young man, Napoleon Hill, interviewed over 500 people and wrote a book on his findings.  The book, “Think and Grow Rich”  became one of the best-selling business books ever printed.[6]  Published in 1937, it continues to be republished today.  There were thirteen components to his list, and prerequisites to these were two; to have a Definiteness of Purpose and a Burning Desire to attain that purpose.[7]

There are several times when we lose our purpose and it is always painful.
Losing our employment can cause lots of stress.  Many people get meaning from the work they do.  Without it one can easily become lost, depressed.  Another is Retirement.  There is an ugly statistic that states that the average life span of someone retired is 6 years!  That’s terrifying.  Another loss of purpose is the Empty Nest.  When our children leave home we can often find we have more time, yet no direction, no purpose for that time.  What can happen is that, without a Purpose, people stop taking good care of themselves.  They don’t pay attention to sleep, nutrition, exercise, all of the things on our Stress Bucket list.  And then, life goes downhill.

In every case, we need Purpose in our lives, a sense of direction for our time and energy.  And, interestingly, it doesn’t much matter what we choose as our Purpose; only that we choose one.  We could have a goal to become the best crossword puzzle player or travel to every state in the Union.  We could volunteer our time to our favorite organization or we could learn a new skill or language.  The “What” of Purpose is not as important as “Having” a Purpose.  Purpose is the steering mechanism on our ship.  Without it we go around in circles, with it we move forward.

Routine and Schedule:  Having a routine or schedule organizes us towards our Purpose.  Also, it helps us keep all of our tasks in order and our stress level in check.  Without the routine, it is easy to let things slide and pretty quickly the stress starts accumulating. [8]

Journaling:  For years I had tried to journal, without success.  Writing about my day was tedious and boring.  Then, my Guru[9] at the time taught me how to do Journal in a way that worked and continues to work.  The assignment; at the end of the day, write down 5 positive things that happened to you today.  Not 5 things in your life.  But, very specifically, 5 things that happened today.  They can be anything.  For several years, every Thursday I would put The Big Band Theory on my list.  

One of the most powerful skills you can develop is Gratitude.  This is a magical skill that refocuses our energy and motivates our Purpose.  

So, why is this so important?  In this life, 10,000 things are happening each second.  Right now, there are nerve endings in your skin sending thousands of messages to the brain.  And, at the same time, the eyes are sending images, the sense of smell, taste, and sound are sending data to the brain.  Literally thousands of signals, and, at any moment, we can only pay attention to 5.[10] 
That means there are 9,995 things we can’t pay attention to.  Half of the data coming in is positive and half is negative.  It’s worth asking ourselves “What am I paying attention to; the positive or the negative?”  With the Gratitude Journal, you begin to create a filter, one that focuses on the 50% of life that is positive.   

[1] Jim Norman, 2003, personal communication

[2] The Stress Bucket on




[6]  By 2015, more than 100 million copies had been sold worldwide

[7] The 13 “steps” listed in the book are:
Desire, Faith, Autosuggestion, Specialized Knowledge, Imagination, Organized Planning, Decision, Persistence, Power of the Master Mind, The Mystery of Sex Transmutation,  The Subconscious Mind, The Brain and The Sixth Sense

[8] Read “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey.  Specifically, the chapter called “Sharpening Your Saw”.

[9], My “Guru” was Oprah, who did a show on a Gratitude Journal.

[10]  “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information[1] is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.[2][3][4] It was published in 1956 in Psychological Review by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Harvard University‘s Department of Psychology. It is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in short-term memory is 7 ± 2. This has occasionally been referred to as Miller’s law.[5][6][7]

Published by Jim Hussey

I am a licensed professional counselor, working in a hospital setting. I have been a meditator and teacher for 47 years, a therapist for 28 years and married for 29 years. My secret vice is golf.

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