When the Bucket begins to fill

Despite all your efforts…

Often, even when you are working at keeping the stress down, something will happen.  For me, it seems like once a month some crisis develops, often related to money.  The car breaks down, someone gets sick, the dog needs some new medication; something unplanned.  And when this happens, what one tends to do is to go into crisis mode.  And that means, we start to get stressed and stop our Mindfulness, and eat more junk food, and skip exercise, and… you get the idea.  We stop doing the things on the list for the 2 valve.  We shut it off.  And what happens?  The stress in our bucket accumulates even faster.  

Instead, what we need to do, first, is to keep doing our daily skills.  “But, there’s too much stress” you will say.  Exactly!  Which is why we must keep the 2-valve open and flowing.  But it isn’t enough.  That’s why there is a 4 valve and a 6 valve.  Those are for additional skills when the stress of life isn’t being managed by our daily skills.  The idea is to add additional coping skills when life gets rough.  

There are lots of coping strategies to avail yourself of and, in the following sections, I will outline and explain some of my favorite skills.

Stress Management Skills

Initially, before taking on the challenge of personal growth, we must determine how we cope with the challenges of daily living.  The Stress Bucket gave us a model for reducing our stress response.  

Now we need to determine what skills we can use to cope in effective ways.  

Up Until Now.

One of my favorite skills is a simple one.  Whenever you start to describe a problem, I suggest you start with the phrase “Up Until Now”.  For example, “Up until now I had a problem with worrying about the future.” Notice that we have put the problem in Past Tense.  This is a sneaky way of beginning to reprogram our Unconscious Mind to look for new, better ways of coping with a problem.  We validate that, yes, this has been an issue in the past (Up Until Now) and we are looking for better alternative ways to deal with this issue.  This is not a dramatic solution to all our problems, but it is a fun way to suggest that change is possible. 

Using the Breath

The breath can be a grounding point for us, particularly when we are stressed.  Everyone has heard the advice “just take a deep breath.”  That’s because it works.  Focusing our attention on the breath and becoming aware of the rising and falling of our chest and diaphragm engender a profound opportunity to pause, to center our attention on the body.  To breathe.  In the Indian tradition, the breath is Prana, the life-giver.  Prana is not only the basic life-force, it is the original creative power. It is the master form of all energy working at every level of our being. Indeed the entire universe is a manifestation of prana.  It’s no wonder that focusing on the breath can be so healing.  One form of Mindfulness Practice focuses the attention on the breath.

Here are some ways to focus on the breath:

Square Breathing

Square breathing is named that because there are 4 equal parts, just like a square has four sides.

They are: 

Important note:  It doesn’t have to be a 4 count, it could be any number,  i.e. 3,  6 or 8 for each side of the square.  One therapist I know uses a count of 4 (in), 7 (hold) and 8 (release).  Experiment with your counting to find what works for you.

Relax and Release

Thich Nhat Hanh uses this Mindfulness exercise to center and ground.

With your eyes closed, breathe in and think the word “relax.”

Breathe out and think the word “release.”  Continue this for minutes. Focus on any part of the body that is tight or tense and imagine any tension or stress just melting out of the body.

Alternate Nostril Breath (Pranayama)

Block the right nostril with your right thumb and breathe in slowly, quietly, without a sound. Release your thumb from your right nostril and block the left nostril with your right middle finger. Now breathe out slowly, quietly. Breathe in with this nostril and then release the right index finger and again close the right nostril with the thumb. Breathe out and in with the left nostril and then switch again. Continue for minutes.

Belly Breathing (diaphragmatic breathing)

One of the most powerful ways to change your mood is to breathe with your diaphragm or belly.

When you breathe with your shoulders or upper chest you only use the top part of your lungs. Because the lungs are surrounded by the rib cage, the upper part cannot expand. You will get about 20 to 40 cc (cubic centimeters) of air with each breath.

If you breathe with your belly your lungs can expand below the rib cage and you get more air, over  400 ccs of air. That means you get 10 times the air per breath.

The easiest way to be sure you are belly breathing is to put your hands behind your neck or behind your back, (or at least at your side) and breathe normally. Doing this relaxes a set of muscles around the belly and you automatically breathe with your diaphragm.

More later….

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 youtube.com

[3]   https://www.sleepfoundation.org/

[4] Youtube.com  https://youtu.be/ZSpB-j5DL9E

[5] www.glycemicindex.com

[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]

Stress – who needs it?

Let’s start with a basic truism.  Every thought that you have is electrical impulses moving through that gray matter called a brain.  That means, I’m sorry to tell you, that —  Thoughts Are Not Real.

So, what does this imply?  First and foremost, every thought about the future is not real, only a possibility.  I’m going to go even further and say that all thoughts about the future are fantasy.  The future is imagined, and not real.  Once you come to understand this, then this emotion called anxiety becomes a product of your imagination.  

At some level, we all know this.  You can imagine that you are having chicken for dinner tomorrow, only to find that you forgot to thaw out the chicken and decide to go out to eat.  Every anxious thought you have is about something you think (believe) is going to happen.  And how often are you right?  Me, maybe 8 to 10%.  That’s not very good odds.  So, if my imagined future is inaccurate, why do I continue to do it?

My theory is that creating anxiety about the future, imagining problems coming, is a survival technique we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.  Our cave ancestors used anxiety to avoid dangers, be they predators waiting out in the dark or strangers from another tribe.  It was the fearful ones that didn’t get eaten or killed.  So, anxiety was an evolutionary necessity.  

At least it was.  In our current society, there are few predators.  Yet the tendency towards anxiety, by predicting danger continues.  Anxiety causes stress. And stress is a killer.

Identifying Stress

It was 1936 when a young Austrian began his research on the impact of the environment on living things.  Hans Selye, joined McGill University where he researched the issue of stress.  He developed a theory he called general adaptation syndrome (GAS) based on experiments injecting mice with extracts of various organs

Noticing that people with different diseases exhibit similar symptoms, he described what he saw as effects of “noxious agents. He later coined the term “stress”, which became universally recognized.

Selye[1] discovered and documented that stress differs from other physical responses in that stress is evident whether one receives good news or bad, whether the result was positive or negative. He called negative stress “distress” and positive stress “eustress”. The system whereby the body copes with stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) system, was also first described by Selye. He also pointed to an “alarm state”, a “resistance state”, and an “exhaustion state”, largely referring to glandular states. Later he developed the idea of two “reservoirs” of stress resistance, or alternatively stress energy.

John W. Mason, of the Walter Reed Institute of Research, challenged Selye’s ideas. Mason was convinces that the rats were not impacted by external substance, but rather, they were upset.  It was their reaction to the experiment, their stressful response, that was the change Selye had been measuring.  From this research, duplicated over and over again, it became clear that this concept of stress was psychological, rather than physical.  

Selye was clear that psychological stress is not directly created by external events, but instead by the anxiety/negative emotions surrounding a situation, such as pressure, discomfort, etc., which people then deem “stressful”. Humans experience stress, or perceive things as threatening, when they do not believe that their resources for coping with obstacles are enough.   Thus, stress becomes the responsibility of the individual.  This is the first of many steps on our path to freedom and serenity.

How do you respond to the daily stress of life?  This would be a good time to inventory some of your favorite ways of dealing with the pressures you feel from day to day.

[1]Hans Selye wrote The Stress of Life (1956), From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist (1964) and Stress without Distress (1974). He worked as a professor and director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the Université de Montréal. In 1975 and 1979 respectively, Dr. Selye and eight Nobel Laureates founded the Hans Selye Foundation and the Canadian Institute of Stress.[4]

In the Beginning

Why write another book on mental health?  

There is a lot of chaos in the world today; lots of tension, stressors, and worries.  Yet mankind has survived these similar times in the past.  We learn from our mistakes or we repeat them.

What is most troubling to me is this current denial of knowledge, science, and education in general.  What seems to be happening, at least in governmental circles; and to some degree in the press, is an emphasis on opinion, rather than fact.

The very notion of “fake news” is an abomination, as there is only the dichotomy of truth and lies.  Fake news is a name for lies and it is being used as a way to manipulate the media and the public, making the truth hard to determine.

What is the solution?  Education.  I was re-reading an explanation of psychological evolution that explains, at least for me, the mechanics of the confusion.  It is called Spiral Dynamics and posits a model of growth that every human and every civilization goes through.

Understanding the stages of psycho/social evolution can dramatically enhance the understanding of the behaviors of others.  Later, in this work, I will expound on the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck & Christopher Cowan and the model of Spiral Dynamics.

As a mental health therapist, I have met a lot of people from all walks of life.  Each has their own story, with their pain.  Yet, over and over again, the same truth arises.  Suffering is a theme of life it seems.  And, until one recognizes the root of suffering, change doesn’t seem to happen.

I am suggesting, in this book, that the ancient sound bite, “Pain is inevitable and suffering is optional” is a fact of life.  I want to suggest that is the path to end suffering.

And, if you join me on this journey, I hope to show you just what I mean by that, and, hopefully, move you out of suffering and into a radical form of accepting the reality of life.  I don’t set a goal of Happiness.  I don’t believe that constant Happiness is sustainable.  What I hope to guide you to is Contentment; a satisfaction with life as it is. 

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.