How big is your bucket?
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
I'm often asked whether stress is a mental health condition, so I thought I'd write a post about it. The short answer is 'no', but it's definitely a relevant factor in many mental health conditions, either as a causal factor or as a result of the condition. Stress does however affect our mental wellbeing.
We all experience stress, it's a normal part of our lives. It's how our body reacts when we feel threatened or under pressure.
The Health and Safety Executive define stress as...
...the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.
The Bucket Analogy
Many people use the bucket analogy to explain how stress works for different people.
The things in our life that we find stressful all collect in our bucket. These stressors will be different for each of us and can be extremely dynamic.
Depending on our individual resilience to stress, we may have a smaller or larger bucket. This means that our bucket may fill up more quickly or more slowly than other people's.
We can also put holes in our bucket, often described as 'taps'. These release the water and help to keep the level of stress down. Again, these releases will be different for each of us.
As the bucket fills up, our stress levels go up and as it empties out, they go down.
There are some common stressors in life, and inventories such as the American Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory attempts to quantify their effects on health. This particular inventory attempts to predict the chance of serious health break-down in the next 2 years by assigning a value to the individual stressors that have happened to a person in the past year.
Adding up the points gives you a risk profile:
Less than 150 points = low risk of stress induced health breakdown
150-300 points = 50% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years
More than 300 points = 80% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years
You can do an online assessment here. Now that you've got your score, you'll be wondering what it means and what you can do about it.
Well the first thing to remember is that this is just one way of trying to quantify stress, and the amount of stress caused by an event, and an individual's resilience to each stressor will be specific to that person. It gives us a good feel for the sorts of things that we're talking about though.
Let's next look at our body's response to stress.
When we feel threatened, our 'fight or flight' response kicks in.
Our adrenal glands immediately produce adrenaline and cortisol, which have significant physiological effects. The heart rate speeds up, increasing blood pressure, the bronchioles in the lungs relax to allow more air in and our pupils dilate. We increase the level of sugar in our blood and enhance our brain's use of it. We also move blood away from less important areas, such as skin and the digestive tract, moving it to our vital organs and large muscles. This can sometimes result in us feeling or actually being sick.
This is a perfectly normal response that is preparing us to deal with the threat. In fact, the stress response often drives people to perform in the face of adversity.
Long Term Effects
However, if our fight or flight mechanism is activated repeatedly, or it persists over a long period of time, it can damage both our physical and mental health. Long term effects can include:
Depression, anxiety and personality disorders
Cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke
Immune system problems resulting in lower resistance to infection and skin problems
Digestive problems such as loss of appetite, stomach ulcers and D&V
Alcohol and substance misuse resulting in a range of further problems
Symptoms of Stress
The symptoms of stress can be categorised as emotional, physical and behavioural. Examples include:
Difficulty making decisions
Outbursts of anger
Change in sex drive
Exercising less often
So what can we do to stop our bucket from overflowing? Well, this will depend on the individual but you can attack both sides of the problem - deal with the stressors, at the same time as opening the taps.
Reduce the Stressors
The first thing to do is recognise that your stress levels are increasing. Look out for symptoms in yourself or perhaps point them out to others.
Once you've recognised the stress, try to figure out what stressors are causing it.
Then see if you can make changes to your life that will remove or reduce each individual stressor. Think about planning ahead or breaking down any big problems down in to smaller chunks.
Trying to find perspective in your life can also help. Ask yourself...
Will this matter in 5 minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years? Is it easy to fix or hard?
Some people also find perspective by helping others in situations worse than their own.
Open the Taps
When it comes to the taps, you may know what reduces your stress levels. However, there are some basic general principles that we can all apply that will make us healthier and happier in lots of ways:
Sleep. Adopt good sleep hygiene. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, sleeping for about 8 hours each night
Eat. Have a healthy diet and adopt regular eating patterns
Socialise. Make time to relax and socialise with friends and family
Exercise. Take regular exercise that you enjoy
Be Healthy. Avoid unhealthy habits like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption or drug misuse
So, in summary. Life is stressful, what's important is that the levels of stress are kept at a healthy level. Recognising when this level is increasing is the first step to a solution, but reducing the stress caused by the stressors in your life and getting the basics right should get you back on track.
If you'd like to discuss this further, please get in touch or think about running a course in your organisation.